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Making Trips to the Dentist with Your Autistic Child Successful Ones

human teeth

It’s something all parents must deal with many times over the course of their child’s life. The dreaded dentist appointments! Whether your child has Autism or not this can be a daunting task. A lot of children and adults fear the dentist; when you add Autism into the mix it can make the appointment near impossible if you aren’t prepared for it. There are some steps you can take before, during and after the appointment to make the experience a pleasant one for your child and for yourself.


Before the Appointment

Make sure that the dentist that you choose has experience with special needs children; Autistic children in particular. Ask as many questions as you need to make yourself feel comfortable with the decision that you have made as far as the dentist that you have chosen. If insurance limits your choices, still call the ones that are on the insurance approved list and ask around. If none have experience with Autism, then find one that is willing to learn about Autism and is receptive to the needs of your child.

Per MyAspergersChild.com, some important procedural questions you might ask about are:

- whether or not they have a short wait time
- whether or not they have an appointment at a time of day when your child is at his best
- whether or not they have the same staff at each visit for consistency
- whether or not you will be allowed to sit with your child in the room while doing the exam
- whether or not the use restraints

You could also allow time for some exercise before the appointment, in order to lower the energy level of your child. In some cases, this works, in some cases it just amps your child up- use judgement, you know your child. If your child has sensory issues, apply deep pressure or have your child wear a weighted vest to the appointment to condone calming. If you do not have a weighted vest or blanket, some dentist will be willing to allow your child to wear the lead vest they use for X-Rays throughout the appointment.

It is also suggested that you slowly desensitize your child to the experience by talking about your personal experience with the dentist. Another good step to take with your Autistic child is to create and read a social story about going to the dentist prior to the appointment. The social story should take the uncertainty out of what will happen at the dentist office. There are social stories that you can find online if you do not want to create your own.

If the noises of doctor’s offices are upsetting, you can request a more quiet or private area or room. Be prepared for this not being an option though. If this option is not available, make sure you take your child’s device. The use of headphones or an iPod are good ways to limit noise. We all know our child has that one trusty device we use for appointments and for calming. Utilize it to it’s fullest.

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At the Appointment

Per Thefreelibrary.com, “Typically, the dental hygienist is the first member of the dental team that a child with Autism will see. Therefore, it is vital that a safe and happy relationship between the patient and dental hygienist exists.” It is important that the staff understands that due to the Autistic child's need for consistency, it is important that the same dental hygienist or dental team members treat the patient at each appointment.

If new people are needed, it is suggested that a slow introduction is recommended, this should be pointed out to the staff at the very first appointment. Both the dental hygienist and parents should always encourage the positive behavior and ignore negative behavior of any Autistic child. This may be something that you have to tell the dentist and dental hygienist.

There are many potential sensory challenges at a dentist’s office. The different tastes, smells, textures, sounds, lights, etc. can be overwhelming. Knowing what areas your child tends to be sensitive will help you know what coping strategies to try. Make sure to talk about any sensory issues your child may have with the dental hygienist and dentist. Including those with the light, air and water tools, which are big problems for a lot of Autistic children visiting the dentist. They simply cannot take the bright light, feeling of the air on their teeth or the water being sprayed in their mouths.

If possible, make the initial appointment for your child used to get used to the surroundings and the staff. Let your child get familiar with the dentist office environment before the actual dental work is performed. For example, let your Autistic child try out the chair, let the hygienist look in his mouth or count his teeth, let him listen to the sound the drill makes, etc. The chair is a big one to allow themselves to familiarize themselves with, as some children with Autism-especially those with Asperger’s Syndrome- do not like the feeling of “falling backwards.” Talk to the dental hygienist about lowering the chair back before your child gets into it, in order to limit sensory issues with the chair going backwards.

Don’t be afraid to give the dental staff tips if they look like they need them.

Per Thefreelibrary.com, some good pointers for Dental hygienists are:

  • Approach Autistic children slowly and in a non-threatening manner.
  • Use a "tell-show-do" approach. Explain each procedure before it occurs and provide praise for acceptable behavior.
  • Always tell the child with autism where and why you will be touching them. This tends to decrease their hypersensitivity to touch.
  • Talk calmly in short, direct phrases. Avoid words or phrases with double meanings.
  • Use a toothbrush to gain access to the oral cavity. It will be familiar to the patient and allow for improved cooperation
  • Find a manual toothbrush that the patient likes. Some toothbrushes may have features or sizes that are bothersome to the patient. Most children with autism have motor skill deficiencies, so electric toothbrushes seem ideal; however, they can be overstimulating to most patients.

After the Appointment

Use the initial time after the appointment to reward your child’s good behavior. Children with or without Autism are more likely to repeat good behaviors if they are rewarded. If you need some more tips for having a successful dental appointment, contact your child’s Occupational Therapist. They are full of a wealth of information that can be useful to you.