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FALL into Your Gustatory Sense

Fall is the season that brings out my favorite treats, and many are enjoyed during my family’s Thanksgiving feast. While I enjoy most of the choices at Thanksgiving, there are definitely some that I avoid; whether it is the texture, the taste, the mechanics of eating it, there is a reason it is not for me. I wonder if this sounds familiar to you or your children: are foods avoided due to texture making them inedible or the taste-making them gag? What about when it comes time to make a grocery list to prepare for the Thanksgiving feast, are you able to find a pen that is not chewed on? If you or your child are a picky eater, pens are consistently being chewed, you feel lost without a pack of gum with you, or your child wants to place everything in their mouth, then this blog may bring some clarity into your world.

Like many of our sensory systems, our gustatory (taste) sensory system helps keep our body safe by alerting us to dangerous tastes, and temperatures and informing us of our preferred textures. In some individuals, this system can be naturally over or under-responsive. An over-responsivity to gustatory input means the taste, texture, or temperature of the food or object in their mouth is too much for their system (i.e. they gag when eating a mushy banana, sometimes just even thinking about it does this too). An individual with an under-responsivity to gustatory experiences, the taste, texture, or temperature is not enough, they crave more of it (i.e. they often order a spice level of 5 at a Thai restaurant or have a hard time knowing when milk tastes sour)! Without the ability to discriminate we can find ourselves feeling rather sick.

One way to identify some sensory preferences you have, or your child has, in relation to your sense of taste is by thinking about the following questions:

  • What types of tastes do you like? Not like?

  • What types of textures do you like? Not like?

  • Do you prefer bland food or seasoned food?

  • Do you prefer certain temperatures?

  • Do you prefer certain types of food/flavor profiles over others?

  • Does chewing on items sooth you?

Maybe thinking about those questions or attempting to imagine what it would be like does not work for you; maybe you are someone who needs to ACT to know. Another way to explore sensory preferences for yourself or your child is to engage in the following experiences that target your gustatory system. As you do them, notice how you or your child respond to them.

  • Suck on a popsicle or chew gum when trying to focus on homework or work. Notice if it helps or hinders your focus.

  • Engage in a family dinner adventure: Make and try different new foods with varying textures, spice levels, temperature, etc.

  • Play a taste testing game! Put on a blindfold and try to guess what you are tasting.

  • Mindfully explore a bite of food: notice the temperature, texture, taste, and how the texture/taste changes as you chew

  • Try new foods with a curious mind, what did you like or dislike about the new food?

Now that you have explored your sense of taste and maybe even identified some preferences you or your child has. It is important to recognize if your responses are neutral or are indicative of a gustatory sensitivity. One way to identify if you have an over, under, or neutral responsivity to gustatory experiences is by exploring this handout.

If at this point you are noticing that you or your child may have a gustatory sensitivity, there is no need to worry. There are professionals who are trained to assess, identify, and support sensory sensitivities and sensory processing disorders. Seeking out a professional for more information, assessment, and support is encouraged. In the meantime, we have listed some activities and guidelines to support both over and under responsivity to gustatory experiences!

Supportive activities for over response to gustatory experiences:

  • Encourage and allow yourself and your child to drink with straws

  • Allow child to engage in grocery shopping with you

  • Practice doing try bites every week of new foods.

  • Use a hand massager on your jaw for a few minutes each day to improve sensitivities.

  • Remember consistency and calorie maintenance are the goal.

Supportive activities for an under response to gustatory experiences:

  • Purchase and use chewable jewelry, gum, mints, sucking candies, HICHEWs etc. that you or your child can use when trying to focus or regulate

  • Drink cold water to alert your system

  • Eat strong tasty, tough chewing, spicier foods.

  • Use a hand massager on your jaw for a few minutes each day to improve sensitivities.

  • Remember consistency and calorie maintenance are the goal.

For more information on the gustatory sensory system and Sensory Processing Disorder, please visit any of the links below.

By Celia Courser & Cary M. Hamilton

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