Swallowing a pill is an important life skill that people can learn with patience and practice. For people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), it can take a little more time, patience and practice to learn how to swallow a pill properly. Learn how to help a person with ASD in your care learn how to swallow a pill.

Can the person in my care chew pills instead of swallowing them?

Sometimes. It is important that everyone learns how to swallow a pill. This can allow for more treatment options.

Some pills must be swallowed whole for the medicine to work properly. Some pills are made to release medicine slowly through the day. These are known as extended release (ER or XR) or sustained release (SR) medications. It is unsafe to chew pills that are meant to work as a longer acting medicine because a whole day’s dose of medication would be released at once.

When do people usually learn how to swallow a pill?

Most children can learn to swallow pills by age 5 or 6. Some children, teens and adults with ASD may take a little longer to learn this skill. Practice learning to swallow a pill with small, round candies first. Once the person in your care can swallow small candies successfully, they can start to swallow pills.

What are common challenges a person with ASD might face when learning how to swallow a pill?

Common challenges people with ASD might face when swallowing pills can include:

  • Anxiety or fear
    When people feel anxious or scared, their muscles tense up (become very tight), especially in the throat, neck and chest. Sometimes, tense muscles in these areas can feel similar to having trouble breathing. This can be scary. With time and practice, a person in your care can build confidence and learn how to swallow a pill properly.
  • Strong gag reflex
    Fussy eaters or people who gag easily on food and drink often struggle with swallowing pills. Taking 3 slow, deep breaths can help ease a strong gag reflex and lower anxiety.
  • Various sensory issues
    Pills come in different shapes, sizes, colors, tastes, smells and textures. People with ASD often have trouble with sensory sensitivities.

Where can I learn more about swallowing a pill?

  • The care team at the Lurie Center for Autism
  • Occupational therapy at Mass General for Children or in your community
  • Visit www.pillswallowing.com
Rev. 9/2018. Mass General for Children and Massachusetts General Hospital do not endorse any of the brands listed on this handout. This handout is intended to provide health information so that you can be better informed. It is not a substitute for medical advice and should not be used to treatment of any medical conditions.