Dental care is essential for maintaining oral health, yet for children with autism, visiting a dentist’s office and undergoing dental procedures can be incredibly challenging. Research shows that children on the spectrum have an increased risk of poor oral health. The unique sensory issues and social difficulties experienced by individuals with autism often make the dental environment overwhelming and anxiety-inducing.
However, by understanding these challenges and implementing appropriate strategies, healthcare professionals and parents can work together to provide compassionate dental care for autism, ensuring the child’s comfort and safety.
At ABA Centers of Florida, it’s our mission to promote the awareness, health, and well-being of kids diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). You can implement effective communication, pre-visit familiarization, sensory integration techniques, gradual exposure, positive reinforcement, and collaboration with dentists to create a positive dental experience.
In this article, we will explore why children with autism may find it difficult to visit the dentist and undergo dental procedures. We will also guide healthcare professionals and parents on how to prepare and ensure dental care for autism gives no one a toothache.
Challenges Faced at the Dentist’s Office for Kids with Autism
1. Sensory Overload
One of the primary challenges faced by children with autism in a dental setting is sensory overload. Consider that kids without an ASD diagnosis also fear dentists’ appointments. The dental office environment consists of bright lights, unfamiliar sounds, and various odors, which can overwhelm individuals with sensory sensitivities. The buzzing of dental equipment, the chemical smells associated with dental materials, and the discomfort of wearing a dental bib or protective eyewear can trigger heightened anxiety and distress.
Many individuals with autism have sensory sensitivities, where certain stimuli can be highly uncomfortable or painful. Dental instruments, such as dental drills or scalers, can be particularly distressing due to their vibrations, high-pitched sounds, and pressure on the teeth and gums.
2. Difficulty with Social Interaction
Autism is characterized by social interaction and communication difficulties, making it challenging for children to understand and engage with the dental team. The presence of new faces, invasive procedures, and the need for physical contact can exacerbate their anxiety and increase resistance or non-compliance.
Notably, kids on the spectrum might find it challenging to sit on the dentist’s chair and remain still for long periods. They may not realize that yelling or running away from a dentist is not a healthy way to express emotion. Fortunately, many ways exist to ease their worries and ensure dental care for autism goes off without a hitch.
Preparing for a Positive Dental Experience
1. Communication and Visual Supports
Effective communication is crucial when providing dental care for children with autism. Dentists and their teams should use clear, concise language and visual supports such as pictures or storybooks in the lobby to help prepare the child for the visit. These tools can explain what to expect, alleviate anxiety, and enhance understanding while making the experience fun. A child on the spectrum should always walk into an appointment with guidance or expectations from the medical staff.
2. Pre-visit Familiarization
All children feel anxiety from experiencing the unknown, particularly around the severe tone of what may come from visiting the doctor. A pre-visit familiarization session can help acclimate the child to the dental environment. This session can involve a tour of the dental office, introducing the staff, and providing opportunities to explore dental instruments non-threateningly. A child won’t be so scared if they recognize that many tools are just fancy toothbrushes!
Allowing the child to become familiar with the surroundings, dental team, and equipment can significantly reduce their anxiety levels.
3. Sensory Integration Techniques
Implementing sensory integration techniques can help create a more comfortable dental experience. For instance, providing weighted blankets or vests can offer deep pressure input, promoting a sense of calmness. Using noise-canceling headphones or soothing music can minimize auditory distractions, and providing sunglasses or eye shields can reduce sensitivity to bright lights. Dentists can also consider adapting the dental environment by dimming lights, reducing strong scents, or using quieter dental instruments whenever possible.
4. Desensitization and Gradual Exposure
Gradual exposure to dental procedures can help desensitize the child and build their tolerance over time. Starting with simple, non-invasive methods like teeth counting or oral examinations before progressing to more complex treatments can help the child feel more comfortable and in control. Allowing the child to have breaks during the procedure can also help prevent sensory overload and reduce anxiety.
Parents can also role-play or tell social stories about dentist visits to prepare their children for the experience. For example, parents can gently introduce toothbrushing with a soft brush or offer chewy or vibrating toys to help desensitize the child’s oral sensitivity. Encouraging and establishing regular dental home care routines early can help children with autism become familiar with oral hygiene practices. By incorporating flossing and mouth rinsing as part of their daily routine, children can become familiar with oral care, making dental visits more manageable.
5. Positive Reinforcement and Rewards
Implementing a positive reinforcement and rewards system can be highly effective in motivating and rewarding children with autism during dental visits. Dentists can offer praise, stickers, small toys, or preferred items as rewards for cooperative behavior and successful completion of dental procedures. This positive reinforcement helps create a positive association with dental care and encourages future compliance.
As a parent, take care not to turn the system of positive reinforcement into negative reinforcement. For example, if you give your child their favorite toy before arriving at the doctor’s office, taking it away when misbehaving might induce a meltdown. Ensure a clear reward pathway and that good behavior is incentivized instead of punished.
6. Collaboration with Parents and Kids
Collaboration between dental professionals and parents is essential for the successful dental care of children with autism. Every child with autism is unique and has different challenges they face. Autism is a spectrum condition, and children diagnosed with the disorder sometimes exhibit severe behavior, such as hitting or running away. Parents should communicate clearly with dentists about any triggers or problems to ensure the safety and comfort of everyone involved.
Dentists should also communicate openly with parents to understand their child’s specific needs, preferences, and any strategies that have successfully managed their dental anxiety. There are several techniques a dentist’s office can implement to reduce appointment-related stress. For example: scheduling the appointment first thing in the morning or giving priority to a child with autism can avoid long wait times and reduces the risk of something going wrong.
Providing choices and opportunities for the child to have a sense of control can empower them during dental visits. For example, allowing the child to choose their preferred toothpaste flavor, the order of procedures, or whether they want to sit or lie down can enhance their feelings of autonomy and reduce anxiety. Dentists can also use clear communication to explain the purpose and steps of each procedure, ensuring the child understands and feels more in control.
By combining multiple techniques and continuously reassessing and adapting to the child’s comfort levels, dental professionals and parents can create a positive and supportive dental experience for children with autism.
ABA Centers of Florida and Doctor Visits
At ABA Centers of Florida, we specialize in Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapy. ABA therapy is the gold standard of autism care. It is guaranteed by decades of scientific research to teach kids on the spectrum valuable skills that enhance their well-being, independence, and happiness.
Board-certified experts create individualized plans of treatment to address your family’s needs. With techniques like positive reinforcement and play therapy, your child will grow their natural talents to unprecedented levels. With time and compassionate care, we can assist in getting your child ready for dentist visits and doctor’s appointments, giving them the social know-how to handle any challenge.
Schedule a FREE consultation by calling (772) 773-1975 to write to us on our website to discover how we can help.