Susan's Blog

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Autism Mommy Swami: Nose Picking

Dear Autism Swami Mommy,

First of all, I have to thank you for your blog and your book, Making Peace with Autism.  I am about a year out from my son’s diagnosis and I just getting to the point where I can read about autism without feeling anxious about my son’s future.
Now, onto our current issue.
My son picks his nose and eats the contents.  In public.  Now I realize he’s just three and a half and there are plenty of NT toddlers out there with similar habits.  But I worry that unlike his peers, he won’t catch onto the fact it’s not appropriate in public or “outgrow” it.  He sometimes is accepting when I gently take his hands and tell him “no.”  Sometimes he even accepts my request that he excuse himself and do it in private.  (Even if “in private” means going into his bedroom and turning his back to me without closing the door).  But lately, he’s been more and more upset when I try to (gently) discourage.  He doesn’t seem to do it for stress relief, mostly when he’s tired and bored.  
We also added a new baby into the mix in May, so that adds to the chaos, confusion and stress around here.
I try to deal with most of my son’s eccentricities with humor and grace, but this one worries me a bit.
It sounds like you had some success getting Nat to modulate some of his behaviors in public.
Any advice?

Thanks, from
Pick a Winner!


Dear Pick,

Your questions made the Swami smile on a dreary day, so thanks for that. But your issues here are definitely not a laughing matter. We all worry about our kids learning socially acceptable behavior, and when they’re very young, it’s scary not knowing if this will ever go away. I remember so many times when Nat would come up with new problem activities (notice I did not say “behaviors.” I think that I am going to avoid that word from now on: it’s so reductive. How can a human being’s activities be consigned to the petty category of “behaviors?” I do say “behavior,” because that’s different. Behavior is simply the code we all must understand, the way one must act in public. But when you put an S on it, behavior becomes behaviors, which is patronizing, analytical, distant, and clinical. What we’re really talking about are activities our child engages in that we wish he’d stop. So let’s just say that.) Anyway, when Nat would start doing things like carrying his BM from one toilet to another, or peeing in potted plants (did he think they were “potty plants,” perhaps?) or ripping photos and laughing, I would feel helpless and discouraged. I would wring my hands to the Universe, crying, “Now this?? Why, Lord?”

You panic. And with autism, there’s a feeling of powerlessness, because it can seem like it is Happening, from Autism On High, and there’s just no appeasing It.

But that’s not true, and you have to believe me in this. For autistic kids are just kids that are sometimes harder to figure out, harder to communicate with. But still they learn.  Autistic kids go through phases like everyone else. Growth can seem different sometimes, though, because it can really feel like your kid has lost skills out of the blue. Or picked up habits, just like that.

Of course it is true that some forms of autism are regressive. I don’t know about that in clinical terms, so I can’t speak about that. But what I do know is that all kids learn, some just get there slower than others. Some learn it and forget it again. I know I do! I have to relearn things sometimes. There are times in our lives when we are more ready than others. The same is true for our kids. I know that Nat suddenly could turn over in his crib. Suddenly he could crawl, when an hour ago he could not. Suddenly he let go of my hands and did his chimpy walk on his own. Suddenly he could talk, read.  One year he hated sports, the next year he became a gymnast. He used to ignore other children. Now he would rather be with peers than anyone else.

Nat does not represent everyone in the autism population, of course. But I know other autistic young adults and the same is true for them. No, they are not cured. They did not de-auticize. They still have some bad habits, perhaps unpleasant activities (like you and me). But they have learned a lot about how to behave in this world.

All of this I say because your guy is 3. So there is a lot of time for him to quit picking his nose. I know you are worried. And that is why you are observing this problem with so much energy. That’s good! That is how we zero in on cause, effect, and what works. You have already had the experience of showing him how to stop, and he has even sometimes excused himself to go do it in private. That is so great! There you have it: a precedent upon which to build hope and real change. If you have already seen that he responds to a gentle “no,” then you will see it again. He will do it again. Because he knows how.

Now, onto some practical suggestions:

1) Maybe take out a tissue and slip that into his hand and say, “Yay!” when he uses it, instead of picking and eating.

2) Or make a social story about what to do with a full nose:

A) Nose is stuffy!

B) Go get a tissue.

C) Blow nose junk into tissue.

D) Wipe nose clean.

E) Throw away tissue.

F) Clean hands.


Draw it. Or cut out pics from magazines to illustrate. Or use the Meyer-Johnson stick figs. Or sing it. Act it out. Be funny. Whatever he’ll understand.

3) If you find he’s doing it for attention, then probably the thing to do is give him attention. BUT, not then. For other things. Give it at other, positive times in the day. Look for praiseworthy moments, like, when he gets a tissue. Make that a very big, happy deal. Give very little attention, on the other hand, when he is picking.

4) Stay patient and relaxed. But also, remember that just about every human being on earth picks his/her nose. Kids and adults. Have you ever looked at the driver in the car next to you when stopped at a light? We shouldn’t, but we do. It’s always better to remember to use tissues, but it’s never a felony if we don’t.

And truly, the more skilled he is with a tissue and going into the privacy of his room, the better things will go for him when he hits puberty…




As someone on the spectrum myself – I’m fairly certain that it is not for attention, and that he does it just as much when he’s alone. It’s very possible that he can feel the bits inside his nose and they bother him, (although he can’t verbalize this or express it yet) which is why it gets worse when he is tired or bored; he has less ability to block out annoying sensory stimulii, or less stuff going on to distract him from it. Unfortunately, at 3.5, he’s probably too young to learn to blow his nose, although you can certainly work on that for him. Make sure he gets plenty of fluids so that his nose and throat area remain moist, and maybe try irrigating it or using a neti pot if you think he could handle it. Look around your house for scented products, which can really irritate our ‘unique’ (I use a more colorful term that isn’t appropriate for this blog) sensory systems. And yeah – acknowledge that the best you’ll be able to do is get him to quit doing it in front of other people. Personally, I’d say let him pick at home in front of you all he wants, because then he’ll have more energy reserves – have you heard of spoon theory? same concept – to control himself in front of others.

— added by Kate on Saturday, August 18, 2012 at 8:57 pm

Very wise, Kate, but remember, we’re all individuals here and so there’s really no way you can be certain why or how the little guy does it. I’d say the mom knows best in this case, and she will weigh all of our advice and then do what’s best.

— added by Susan Senator on Saturday, August 18, 2012 at 9:27 pm

Thanks for all the input. I appreciate it!

— added by Pick a Winner Mom ;-) on Thursday, August 23, 2012 at 5:10 pm

Our boy likes to make sure his penis is still in his pants – ALOT! We’ve talked to him numerous times, but we’ve also distilled it down to one word when we are in public. When his hand is headed towards his junk, we just say “hands” just loud enough for him to hear, and the hand stops moving south. We also reiterate the phrase “that’s for private time”, and he might repeat the phrase, but it does lessen the bahavior we are trying to diminish. Lisa

— added by Lisa on Thursday, August 23, 2012 at 6:10 pm

My son also picks his nose but he wipes it on walls or fabric. We lost our house a few months ago and moved in with some friends, but when they seen it wa on the walls they told us to move that they couldnt handle that kind of behavior. Now we live with my dad and he has done it again this time in the bathroom right beside the toilet where there is paper to use to blow his nose. I am at a lose as to how to stop this. any ideas?????

— added by Tammi on Saturday, October 11, 2014 at 12:19 pm

Kate, thank you for your comment. My daughter has asked me for help in stopping picking her nose, but it is very related to her sensory difference s. I’m looking for thoughts from other adults on the spectrum and this post popped up in my search. I hadn’t thought of it in terms of the spoon theory, but that makes a lot of sense.

— added by spectrum mommy of spectrum daughter on Sunday, January 25, 2015 at 1:41 am