For many children, a trip to the pediatric dentist can feel like an adventure full of strange tools, sounds, and sensations. For kids with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), these experiences can often be overwhelming, causing anxiety or discomfort that may deter them from getting the oral care they need. However, with the right preparation, it’s entirely possible to make dental visits manageable and even positive experiences for children with autism.
How Does Autism Affect Dental Care?
Autism is a developmental disability that impacts social interaction, communication, interests, and behavior. It manifests itself differently in every individual, but some common symptoms might create challenges that can make it difficult for children to receive the dental care they need.
Children with autism often have unique sensory issues that can be more intense than those experienced by other children. This means that everyday sensations can feel overwhelming or uncomfortable to them, and this is particularly relevant during a visit to the dentist.
Dental environments often have a multitude of sounds that can cause distress for a child with autism. The high-pitched noise of a dental drill or the suction machine, the chatter of other patients, or even the ambient music can be overwhelming for a child with hypersensitive hearing.
The tastes, smells, and physical sensations associated with dental treatments can also be challenging. The distinct flavor of fluoride or other dental products, or the antiseptic smell common in healthcare settings, can be off-putting or overwhelming to a child with autism.
Difficulty with Change
Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder often find comfort in routine and predictability. They may struggle with new environments and unexpected situations, such as a visit to a new dentist or even a familiar dentist performing an unfamiliar procedure.
Children with autism might have difficulty expressing their feelings, needs, or discomfort, making it hard for the dentist to adjust their approach. Children with ASD might struggle to articulate their feelings, including physical discomfort. They may find it difficult to tell the dentist if something hurts or feels uncomfortable during the procedure. This can lead to unnecessary distress and may make dental care more challenging.
Many dental procedures require the patient’s cooperation. Dentists may ask the child to “open wide,” “bite down,” or “turn your head.” Special needs patients might struggle to comprehend these instructions or may need more time to process and respond, which can make these interactions more difficult.
How Do I Prepare My Autistic Child for the Dentist?
Parents of children with autism may be hesitant to take their child to the dentist for fear of sensory overload, disrupting their routine, or encountering behavioral issues. Here are some helpful strategies to prepare your child with autism for their dentist visit.
- Choose the Right Dentist: Finding a dental professional who is experienced in treating children with autism can make all the difference in the type of dental experience your child will have. Good pediatric dentists are patient, understanding, and have specialized training so they can adapt their techniques to accommodate your child’s needs.
- Familiarize Your Child: Prior to the appointment, familiarize your child with the dental office. Show them pictures of the office and the dentist. If possible, consider visiting the dental office for a quick tour.
- Use Social Stories and Visual Schedules: Create a visual schedule or social story about the dentist. This is a simple, step-by-step explanation of what they can expect during their visit, using clear and reassuring language.
- Practice at Home: Play ‘dentist’ at home using a toothbrush to touch your child’s teeth and mouth. This can help reduce dental anxiety and help them get used to the sensation of someone else handling their mouth.
- Sensory Tools and Comfort Items: Bring along headphones to muffle noise, sunglasses to diminish the bright light, or a weighted blanket to keep your child comfortable. Don’t forget their favorite toy or comfort item.
Prepare Your Child For a Dental Visit With a Visual Schedule
Here’s an example of a visual schedule that you can use to help your child understand what to expect:
- Arrival at the Dentist’s Office: We enter the office and check-in at the front desk.
- Waiting Room Time: We sit in the waiting room. We can read a book or play with a toy while we wait.
- Meeting the Dentist or Hygienist: The dentist or hygienist will come to greet us. They may be wearing a white coat and a mask.
- Entering the Dental Room: We will follow the dentist into the dental room. There’s a big chair that moves up and down.
- Sitting in the Dental Chair: You will sit in the dental chair. It might move up and make a little noise. You can sit on my lap if you are scared.
- Wearing the Bib: The dentist will put a bib around your neck. This keeps your clothes clean.
- Examining the Mouth: The dentist will look inside your mouth. They may use a small mirror and a light.
- Cleaning the Teeth: The hygienist will clean your teeth. This might tickle a bit.
- Rinsing the Mouth: After cleaning, you can rinse my mouth with water.
- The Goodbye: The dentist will say goodbye and we’ll leave.
Remember, every child with autism is unique, and you may need to modify these strategies or visual schedules based on their individual needs. Patience, practice, and preparation can go a long way in ensuring a successful dental visit.
Visit Children’s Dentistry of Manatee for a Pediatric Dentist for Kids With Autism
Children’s Dentistry of Manatee provides oral health care for patients with autism and other developmental disabilities. We specialize in pediatric dentistry, and our staff is experienced in working with children of all abilities. Our team takes the time to get to know your child and make them feel comfortable before any dental work is done. Visit us today to experience the difference a caring and experienced pediatric dentist can make!