Maddie Robson has pica – a rare feeding disorder most common in children, which sees people repeatedly eating inedible objects like cigarette ends – but which, in her case, sees her sucking or crunching everything from hammer heads to the prongs on plugs.
And, forced to ‘Maddie-proof’ the family home in Stockton-on-Tees, Co. Durham, stay-at-home mum Yasmin, 30, and retail worker Ken, 38, frequently retrieve possessions belonging to her sisters Lacey-Leigh, 11, and Brooke, seven, from their youngest daughter’s jaws.
Yasmin said: “We’re constantly on high alert, worrying she is going to swallow something metal.
“We’re running around trying to save her life, because everything she wants to put in her mouth is dangerous.
“Luckily, she doesn’t appear to have swallowed anything so far, but we fear it’s only a matter of time.”
With everything that could possibly present a danger either taped up, or put out of reach, Yasmin says her daughter has had close calls with potentially deadly objects like batteries – which contain highly dangerous acid.
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She said: “I have never come across another person who enjoys the feeling of chewing a battery like Maddie does.
“If she takes one out of the TV remote, she’ll peel the wrapper off with her teeth and start biting and chewing it – we have to be so careful.”
She added: “Luckily, so far, we’ve always got there in the nick of time.”
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Born a happy, healthy baby on September 14, 2015, by the time she was one, Maddie had difficulties with communication – which manifested in her not making sounds such as babbling or laughter, like other babies her age.
Her parents now know these were signs of the developmental disorder, autism, which was finally diagnosed in August 2019 and doctors believe is related to her pica.
But at only nine months old, she was already fixated with metal – an obsession which has seen her breaking her sisters’ toys or curtain tie-backs to get screws, licking the chains on park swings, sucking on hammers and even pulling out a doctor’s computer plug to try to swallow the metal prongs.
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Yet pica was not actually diagnosed until October last year.
Yasmin said: “When she was younger, we were worried our parenting was at fault, so when she was diagnosed with pica four months ago at a general check up with her paediatrician it was a relief to know we weren’t doing something wrong, and to put a name to it.”
She added: “From being tiny, she was always touching the fire guard in front of the fireplace, then she moved on to sucking it, to the point that flakes of paint were coming off, so we had to get rid of it.
“And if we jingled our keys in front of her, she wasn’t interested in the sound – she wanted to put them in her mouth.”
Once she was mobile, Maddie would climb up onto the living room sofa and crack open curtain tie-backs to reach the screws inside.
Yasmin said: “She’s strategic – she knows what she needs to do to get what she wants. We call her Houdini, because she can get anywhere.”
Even the health visitor was not spared.
“When her health visitor came to the house, when she was one, she’d be after either her metal badge, the buttons on her coat, or the zip on her bag,” said Yasmin.
She continued: “Every time she took something off, Maddie found something else to try and put in her mouth.
“The health visitor would laugh because I’d warned her about what she was like. It sounds like she is a savage!
“My other daughter Brooke will jokingly say, ‘She’s like a pirate. She wants your silver and gold’.”
To make their house safe for their magpie-like daughter, Yasmin and Ken have had to build cupboards beyond her reach, tape up remote controls, hide toolboxes on top of their bedroom wardrobe and fit units around plug sockets, so she cannot get at them.
Her behaviour also causes difficulties for her sisters.
“My eldest wants to be a fashion designer, but she can’t have a sewing machine in the house because Maddie is fascinated by them,” said Yasmin.
She added: “She broke her last one trying to get at the metal in it.”
Maddie’s behaviour has also caused quite a stir in public places.
“When she was about three, I used to take her to the park and sit her in the swing,” said her mum.
She continued: “She was more interested in sucking on the metal chains than she was about being pushed in it, despite me trying to stop her.
“Older people would often make comments about it being unhygienic or they’d say, ‘Get your child under control’.
“Other children would say things, too – like, ‘Mummy, why is that girl licking on the swing?’”
She continued: “I could see the sheer panic in the mums’ faces, like they wanted the ground to swallow them up, but that’s just kids being kids. I’m happy to explain to them why she is doing it and raise some awareness.”
It was around this time that Maddie was diagnosed with autism, in August 2019, after years on a waiting list for her to be assessed.
But the pica diagnosis was only made in October 2020 during a routine telephone consultation when Yasmin told her daughter’s paediatrician that Maddie was still chewing metal.
She said: “I had never heard of pica before, I thought it was just sensory issues, or a craving she had.
“Even though she does not eat the metal, her doctor is still saying it is pica, because she has to put it in her mouth.
“We hadn’t pushed for a diagnosis before this because having a name wasn’t going to change what she does. She got her autism diagnosis and nothing changed, so with the pica, it had reached a point where we’d learned to manage it and adapt our lives to it, so having a name for it didn’t change anything very much.”
She continued: “Since she was a baby, we’ve told several doctors she was obsessed with metal and none of them had said it was pica – it was a 101 different things, like sensory needs, a potential vitamin deficiency – until now.”
Looking back on their journey, Yasmin remembers one occasion when she took Maddie to see the same doctor while she was still being assessed for autism.
She said: “Maddie was crawling around while we were talking and all of a sudden his computer switched off.”
She added: “She had pulled out the plug to try and suck it!
“He was really shocked and fascinated by her, and started asking me all these questions. That was the first time Maddie showed a doctor her pica rather than me just telling them what she does.”
Another time, when Maddie was three-and-a-half, Yasmin rushed her to the local hospital, convinced she had swallowed a 20p coin, only to discover she had suspected the wrong daughter.
She said: “Brooke eventually confessed that it was she who had accidentally swallowed it after throwing the coin in the air – but she was too scared to admit what she had done!
“She was five and the doctors did an x-ray on her, and luckily they spotted it and she managed to pass it through her system.”
Ironically, there is one type of metal object Maddie refuses to put in her mouth – any form of cutlery or kitchen utensil except for a fork, which is only a recent development.
A fussy eater, she will only eat chicken and mushroom pasta, chicken nuggets and chips, turkey dinosaurs, potato waffles, Quaver’s crisps or the odd Bourbon biscuit – and is seeing a dietician in March.
Yasmin said: “We have never understood why, out of all the metal objects in the world, cutlery and kitchen utensils are the things she won’t put in her mouth. If you give her a spoon or a knife, she’ll look at them, but that’s it. We don’t have to hide them away because she won’t touch them.
“It was only in the last year or so that she started using a fork to eat food, because the feeling of pasta sauce on her hands became too much for her senses. That was a massive achievement for her.”
She continued: “Because of her autism, Maddie is behind in her motor skills – she wouldn’t be able to cut up her food with a knife and fork – and she lacks understanding of the world, so we think that and her pica are linked.”
Since she was a toddler, Maddie has also been experiencing absence seizures, where she momentarily loses touch with the world.
Her parents did not realise these were something serious until her autism assessment, when health professionals noticed the signs, resulting in a diagnosis of epilepsy – a disorder of the central nervous system – earlier this month.
Meanwhile, an alarming consequence of having pica has been the damage done to Maddie’s teeth.
Yasmin said: “Dentists want to remove eight of her baby teeth, because she has damaged them so badly from chewing on metal.
“To look at her, she has a beautiful smile – but it is her back teeth which have the majority of the damage. And, because of her autism and sensory needs, getting her to brush her teeth is a struggle.”
And Maddie’s desire to lick everything metal has been particularly alarming because of the risk from Covid-19.
Yasmin said: “I took her for a walk recently and when we got to the crossing, I saw her press the metal button. She was staring and staring at it, so I knew she wanted to lick it but, thankfully, we managed to cross in time.
“I’ll probably get arrested one of these days for trying to spread disease!”
Yasmin, who is getting support from The Daisy Chain Project, a local autism charity, and lamotrigine medication for Maddie’s epilepsy, has set up an Instagram account, @therobsonsmum, to share her daughter’s journey and raise awareness about pica.
Yet, despite having to leave her job in retail in 2020 to care for Maddie, she remains hopeful for the future,
She said: “As she has got older, she has definitely got a bit better.”
She added: “Now she’ll give us back the metal object we spot her with without screaming or fussing, because she wants the praise.
“Maddie might be living with me for the rest of her life, we don’t know yet if she will be independent.
“But she has a great outlook – because absolutely nothing fazes her.”