by Dr. Greg Grillo (dentably.com)
One of the most common questions I get as a dentist is how to make the experience more positive for children with autism. A dentist’s office is full of strange sights and sounds, and I’ve seen firsthand how upsetting this can be to children on the autism spectrum. Fortunately, there are steps you can take to both prepare your child as well as give their dentist the tools they need to put the child at ease during any dental procedure. This is important, as a trip to the dentist is a vital part of good oral health for children with autism as much as it is for those without.
Good Routine at Home
The first step is to create a good oral hygiene routine at home. Creating a good oral hygiene routine at home not only make trips to the dentist quicker and easier, but also gets your child in the proper mindset about clean teeth. Both of these ultimately make the trip less scary and easier for your child.
First, it makes the visits at the dentists quicker and easier. A clean mouth doesn’t require as much work from the dentist. It also prevents some of the nastier procedures like fillings that are more likely to set off the child.
It also gets the child in the proper mindset about clean teeth. While the dentist might seem scary, a routine cleaning visit is just a super-powered brushing and flossing. Understanding this can help the child going into the appointment as they are already use to many of the things about to happen and is a simple way to frame it to make it seem less imposing.
Preparation Is Key
Probably the single most important step is simply to prepare your child. Make sure they understand what’s about to happen and why. If you can, let them see the process on another person first that can help make it easier for your child to understand. For example, show them a video of the procedure, or even allow them to watch it happen to you first. Knowing what is about to happen takes a lot of the mystery out of the appointment and gives them a measure of control over what is about to happen. This is especially true if this is your child’s first visit as the unknown part can be the scariest.
Involve the Dentist
Another good step is simply to let the dentist know so they can prepare accordingly. I’ve worked with and help many patients with autism, as I’m sure many other dentists have as well, and I will always do what I can to make them more comfortable. All children with autism are unique and are upset by different stimuli. Speaking with your dentist ahead of time will help alleviate any fears you may have as well as inform your dentist of your child’s dislikes, which can help them avoid any situations that may be upsetting to your child.
Have A Plan
Inevitably, at some point some things will go wrong, so it’s important to have a plan on what to do. For example, bring a pair of headphones if you know loud noises are a trigger for your child. Make sure the dentist is aware here as well, as they can help to both implement the plan or potentially act to mitigate any issues before they begin.
What sort of triggers your child will have are going to be unique to your child, so make sure to share that with your dentist.
Lastly, it’s important to set a clear reward and follow up with it. Many children, autistic or not, are influenced heavily by the promise of reward, and are much more likely to behave when given an incentive. Have a clear reward for a successful dentist visit, and then follow up along with praise. Many dentists can also help you out with this by having a small toy prize for children after their visit.
Positive reinforcement is a big part of the Planned Activities Training which is a series of steps to make activities your child participates in more positive. I highly recommend giving it read, and implementing some of the steps if you have a child with autism as it can make going to dentist, along with many other things, much more enjoyable for your child.
Visiting the Dentist With a Child With Autism
While it can be stressful for a child with autism visiting the dentist is an absolute necessity. Hopefully the above tips can help you make the next appointment as smooth as possible. If ever in doubt, reach out to your dentist and get their opinion. Any dentist will be happy to help you and do whatever they can to make you and your child’s experience a positive one!