Taking any child to the dentist poses a challenge, but taking your child with autism to the dentist poses an even greater one. Although difficult, these visits are necessary since oral hygiene may affect the health and behavior of your child.
A large help in the process is the dentist themselves. The New York Times discussed how dentists are becoming more accepting of providing care to children and adults on the autism spectrum as long as the patients are cooperative. A dental hygienist in Massachusetts, Karen Raposa, discusses how knowledge of autism is spreading in the dental community, so if you don’t find a dentist who is a good fit right away, don’t give up. It is likely that if you keep looking, you will find a dentist who is willing to be patient with your child and uses safe interventions proven by research to help.
One intervention that was found to be successful was sensory adaptation. Children with autism who were given “dental cleanings in a darkened room with colored lights projected on the ceiling and a weighted vest that delivered soothing pressure” had lower behavioral distress, physiological distress, and child report of pain,” as found by Leah I. Stein, an occupational therapy researcher. We may not have a team of researchers, but we have an Instagram.
We recently took to our social media community to ask for any and all tips for visiting the dentist with an individual with special needs. Here are some helpful responses that may provide some guidance and hopefully assists you on your next trip to the dentist.
“A good children’s dentist is # 1! We love ours. They get to pick a movie to watch on their own personal tv while they are in their chair. We bring their ‘loveies’ along to help them feel better. They let the kids play with the things they are about to use on them first. The kids know at the end they get a toy from the dentist and when they were younger I would get them a little toy also. Extra bribe. Plus they just looked at their teeth the first few check ups. Worked their way up to X-rays and finally getting an actual cleaning when they were much older(maybe 5?) We never pushed anything on them. It’s was hard at first but they love going now!” – @martinfamily04
“Practice playing in their mouth and mention the dentist all the time prior to the appointment.” – @newmoonwhodis
“If possible, practice (days before) opening his/her mouth and saying ‘ahhhh!’” – @_prettymskitty
“Prepared my son by watching Youtube videos about kids going to the dentist. I also googled some images to print and laminate to make some small visual supports to use while I explained what we would be doing (broken down step-by-step). We sat down and explained it to him several times in the days leading up to the appointment. On the morning of the appointment we would continue with the visual supports all the way up to the waiting room or even the exam room. I also was firm with him on his first visit. He began to get upset, but I avoided reinforcing his anxiety by remaining calm and reminding him that he was doing a good job, and that I was right there with him (instead of further upsetting him by removing him from the situation as this would in his mind confirm his anxieties: you have to let them know that you believe they are capable and that they’re isn’t anything to worry about. We did have to restrain his arms a bit as he would attempt to reach for the dentist’s hands (or the dental instruments), but after the first visit or two it’s not a big deal, and it’s a breeze!” – @bitter_olives
“I had to learn to just stay in my seat. Every child is different, of course, but my daughter behaves better when I am not in view or on the sidelines.” – @mickeylover225
“I always notify any doctor that my son has autism prior to our arrival. I choose the earliest appointment possible to avoid any unnecessary wait. I find that since my child enjoys the YouTube Kids app, I will let him play watch it on my phone. If he is wanting to bring a small toy I will allow it. I do not force him to do anything he doesn’t want to do. Last month when were at the dentist he did not want to get an xray taken so did not do it. It can be tough but as long as you are prepared the process can go smoothly.” – @alyssakarlette
“Make sure it’s a dentist that understands your child. It won’t all be pleasant (who enjoys going to the dentist?!) but if the dental team gets it – they’ll help you help them help your sweetie to make it as quick and non traumatic for your darling 👍” – @jmsmith718
“We always do social stories before doctor visit. Surprises like these appointments are fun. I actually purchased some dental tools and we watched YouTube videos of regular cleanings. Also talked to the dentist and they actually let my little hold some of the tools. Cool sunglasses were a hit for the bright light.” – @kingsmeme
“Go to the office to check the place out. Have the dentist tell your child exactly what will happen at his exam, step by step, missing nothing. After you leave the office, go over what will happen, step by step, several times. Now your child has visuals and an expected and memorized set of experiences recorded in his brain and ready to play out. I call this “setting it up”. It has been extremely successful with my son Forrest who is now 19.” – @kimlesak
“I am an ASD mother and a paediatric dentist. Always inform dental office of condition. Ask for first appointment for the day so there is no waiting. Be honest with the child on what they can expect. Leave siblings at home. Consider sedation for more complicated procedures.” – @yas_mahomed
Although every child with autism is unique and expresses themselves in different ways, we hope that some of these tips might apply to your loved one and help make a trip to the dentist a little easier on you. For more general information on autism spectrum disorder and informational resources, please visit the American Autism Association page and feel free to contact us through our Help Hotline, where we will respond through email or through a phone call to any questions or requests for information.