Overcoming Dental Care Challenges in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder

For most kids, a trip to the dentist is a mixed blessing. It may not be their favorite thing to do in the world, but most understand the importance of having their teeth cleaned and maintaining a cavity-free smile. Often, there’s a deal in place for a good behavior award after a trouble-free visit.

For children with autism spectrum disorder, it’s a different experience. A dental appointment presents a daunting array of sensory challenges. With bright lights, hard surfaces, strange equipment, and a high-pitched whirl of dental devices, the dentist’s office can be an overwhelming experience. According to a study published in Pediatric Dentistry by researchers from University of Southern California, nearly 20 percent of children with autism have required restraints during dental visits, and nearly 40 percent required pharmacological methods, such as anesthesia during cleaning.

Preparing for the Dentist

Parents of children with ASD face countless challenges each day. Knowing your child is going to encounter a perplexing set of unknowns at the dentist’s office means it might be best to develop a strategy prior to the visit. It’s important to set aside time to prepare yourself and your child for this significant event.

It all starts with choosing the right dentist. Though it’s not a recognized specialty, there are dentists that work with children with ASD on a regular basis. A calm demeanor and an abiding a love of children are two indispensable qualities you’ll want in a pediatric dentist. You can research dentists and read reviews online. If at all possible, meet with prospective dentists beforehand to check out their office environment and to see if they have the appropriate experience and suitable temperament to work with your child. In anticipation of your child’s dental examination, you might want to also consider the following:

  • Ask if you can bring your child to the dentist’s office prior to the appointment to meet the staff, check out an examination room, experiment with sitting back in the chair and generally get used to the environment.
  • Find out if you’ll be able to sit next to your child during the examination.
  • Let the dentist know your child may have difficulty answering questions or expressing themselves.
  • Discuss “Tell, Show and Do,” with the dentist. In other words, the dentist should first explain or tell your child what’s about to happen, then show your child the tool or device that’s going to be used, then do, or perform the next part of the procedure. It’s important that your child be reassured every step of the way.
  • Stress the importance of constant communication and positive feedback to eliminate uncertainty.

There’s also homework you can do with your child to prepare for the visit with the dentist. Learning how to brush properly is a task that requires daily practice and is a fun exercise you can do together. Hard, nylon bristle brushes can be particularly unpleasant for children with sensory challenges. It can be worthwhile to experiment with a softer alternative that doesn’t provide an abrasive feeling.

You can also desensitize your child to what happens in a dental exam by using a small, plastic hand-mirror to explore the inside of his or her mouth. Make a game out of counting teeth or examining gums. Playing dentist can help soothe their fears of the unknown. Another excellent idea is to find a book about going to the dentist and personalize the story by inserting your child’s name.

The main idea is to eliminate surprises wherever possible. There are many successful dental visits performed with children with ASD every day. If you take the time to prepare in advance you will reap the reward of a stress-free (or at least a less stressful) dental appointment.

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