Sensory Systems Explained: What is Gustatory?

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The gustatory sensory system (taste) plays an important role in child development. Taste preferences and aversions can influence a child’s diet and nutrition, which in turn can affect their physical growth and overall health.

Did you know that we have EIGHT sensory systems?! Most people only know the top five. This blog post is part of a series in which we delve into all eight sensory systems.

In addition to the gustatory system we have seven other sensory systems. They are:

Gustatory Sensory System

The primary organ responsible for taste perception is the tongue. On the surface of the tongue, there are tiny structures called taste buds. These taste buds contain specialized cells called taste receptors that are responsible for detecting different flavors such as sweet, sour, bitter, salty, and umami (savory). In children, taste buds are fully developed by the time they are around 5 years old.

The nerves that transmit taste signals from the tongue to the brain are called cranial nerves. The main cranial nerves involved in taste perception are the facial nerve, the glossopharyngeal nerve, and the vagus nerve. These nerves carry information about taste from the tongue to the brainstem, where they are processed and relayed to higher brain regions.

In the brain, taste information is processed in several regions, including the gustatory cortex and the amygdala. The gustatory cortex is responsible for the conscious perception of taste, while the amygdala plays a role in the emotional and behavioral responses to taste.

As children grow and develop, their taste preferences may change. Exposure to a variety of flavors and textures can help children develop more diverse and healthy eating habits. Repeated exposure to a food can also increase a child’s acceptance of it, even if they initially disliked it.

However, some children may have sensory processing issues that can affect their gustatory sensory system. For example, some autistic children may have hypersensitivity or hyposensitivity to certain tastes, textures, or temperatures of foods. This can lead to restricted diets and difficulties meeting their nutritional needs.

The Importance of Oral Input in Preschool

Oral sensory input is important in preschool because it plays a critical role in a child’s development and overall well-being. Here are some reasons why oral sensory input is important in preschool:

Nutritional intake: Oral sensory input is essential for eating and drinking, which is crucial for a child’s nutritional intake and growth. By exploring different tastes, textures, and temperatures of food, children can develop a diverse and healthy diet.

Speech and language development: Oral sensory input is also important for speech and language development. By engaging in activities that promote oral motor skills, such as chewing and swallowing, children can develop the muscles needed for speech and language production.

Sensory regulation: Oral sensory input can help regulate a child’s sensory system. By providing appropriate oral sensory input, such as chewy foods or crunchy snacks, children can help regulate their own sensory systems, which can promote focus and attention.

Socialization: Eating is often a social activity, and children who have difficulty with oral sensory input may have difficulty participating in social eating situations, which can impact their overall socialization and development.

Indicators of Hypersensitive or Hyposensitive Oral Input:

Hypersensitivity or hyposensitivity to oral input can affect a child’s ability to tolerate different tastes, textures, and temperatures of foods. Here are some red flags that may indicate sensory processing issues related to the gustatory sensory system:

Extreme pickiness or refusal of certain foods: Children with sensory processing issues may avoid certain foods due to their taste, texture, or temperature. They may have a limited diet and refuse to try new foods.

Difficulty chewing or swallowing: Children with hypersensitivity to oral input may have difficulty chewing or swallowing certain foods. They may gag or choke easily. Frequent drooling may also be apparent.

Over-reliance on certain types of food: Children with sensory processing issues may prefer foods that are predictable or bland, smooth, and easy to swallow, such as pureed foods, soft fruits, or crackers.

Dislike of strong flavors: Children with hypersensitivity to oral input may be averse to strong flavors, such as spicy, sour, or bitter foods. They may also dislikes brushing their teeth and complains about toothpaste.

Seeking out intense flavors: Children with hyposensitivity to oral input may seek out intense flavors, such as very spicy or salty foods, or love using strong toothpaste flavors and vibrating toothbrushes to get the sensory input they need.

Mouthing non-food items: Children with sensory processing issues may put non-food items in their mouth, such as dirt, paper, or toys, in an attempt to get oral input.

Unusual eating habits: Children with sensory processing issues may exhibit unusual eating habits, such as chewing food for a long time, spitting out food, or refusing to eat certain parts of a food, such as the crust on bread.

If you notice these red flags, consult with a healthcare professional, such as a pediatrician, occupational therapist, or speech therapist, who can help evaluate and address any sensory processing issues that may be related to the gustatory sensory system.

Oral Input Activities for Preschoolers 

Oral input activities are important for all preschoolers because they play a critical role in developing and strengthening the gustatory sensory system, which includes the muscles, nerves, and receptors in the mouth and jaw.

Some oral input activities that can be done with children include:

Chewing activities: Offer chewy snacks, such as gum, fruit leather, or beef jerky, or chewy toys, such as silicone necklaces or chewy tubes, to provide oral sensory input and strengthen oral motor skills.

Drinking activities: Offer straws of different thicknesses or shapes to encourage drinking and promote oral motor development.

Sensory exploration: Encourage children to explore different tastes, textures, and temperatures of food. Offer a variety of foods and encourage children to touch, smell, and taste them. You can also use sensory bins to introduce new sensory experiences for children that are adverse to tasting new foods. 

Oral motor exercises: Encourage children to practice oral motor exercises, such as blowing bubbles, pinwheels, kazoos, or whistles, to strengthen oral motor skills.

Tasting activities: Offer blind taste tests of different foods and encourage children to identify the flavors and textures they are experiencing.

Texture play: Offer different textured foods, such as crunchy cereal or soft pudding, and encourage children to explore the textures with their mouths.

Oral hygiene: Teach children about oral hygiene and encourage them to practice brushing and flossing to keep their mouths healthy.

If you are working with a child who is experiencing hypersensitivity or hyposensitivity to oral input consult with a healthcare professional, such as a pediatrician or occupational therapist to determine the best activities for their needs. 

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