Autism and the Dentist

Summertime can be a great time to get those necessary appointments, such as a teeth cleaning, out of the way before going back to school. I don’t know any children that like going to the dentist, but it can be particularly tough for a child with autism. If there is a trip to the dentist in your future and you’re worried about how to handle it with your child, I’ve included some tips and things to think about before heading to the office.

  1. Find a dentist who specializes in children with special needs
  2. There are a lot more dentists out there now who understand how to work with a child with special needs. You can research online or just call ahead to see how your dentist manages children who struggle to sit still or really struggle with being at the dentist.  If you’re unable to find someone nearby who specializes in special needs children, a pediatric dentist should at least be better equipped to work with children.

  3. Try to get in early
  4. Some dental offices may schedule early morning appointments for special cases. Getting into the office early before anyone else is there can help to ease the waiting process, as well as calm any fears you may have of managing tantrums with others present.

  5. Prepare with social stories or visuals
  6. As always, preparation is important. Helping your child to know what to expect can make the process go a little smoother. Creating social stories about what happens at the dentist and/or using visuals to help your child understand can be great ways to prepare.

  7. Practice
  8. If possible, it may help to practice with some dental tools. If you don’t have access to the real deal, using pretend instruments may help. This way, the tools won’t seem so scary and the dentist office won’t be the first time your child is experiencing this.

  9. Keep a distraction at the ready
  10. If it’s okay with your dentist, you may want to bring in some things to help soothe and distract your child. If your child likes watching things on an iPad, for instance, that could help keep your child occupied and still while the hygienist or dentist is working. Some offices geared toward children may even have a tv with videos your child can watch. You may be able to bring in your child’s favorite. If screen time isn’t your thing, books or fidget toys can help provide some distraction, as well.

  11. Provide reinforcers
  12. In addition to having items to keep your child occupied while at the dentist, it will also be important to have a reinforcing item to provide for things like sitting still, staying calm, allowing the dentist to work, etc. You always want these things to follow the behavior you want to see more of, as you are likely to get more of that behavior in the future.

  13. Think about the sensory piece
  14. The dentist is full of opportunities for sensory overload. The sounds of the tools, the fluorescent lights, the different tastes and textures can make the experience difficult if your child is sensitive to these things. Think about ways you can help lessen the effects ahead of time. Headphones, earplugs, or sunglasses may help. In terms of taste, you can talk to the hygienist or dentist ahead of time to see if there are flavors your child may be able to tolerate better.

  15. Gradually build up to the actual appointment
  16. If your child has had a bad experience with the dentist in the past and gets extremely upset or refuses to go, building up to the actual appointment by taking small steps can help. For instance, you may first just practice driving to the dentist, but not getting out of the car. The next time you may get out of the car, but not go to the door. The idea is to break the process down into as small of steps as necessary to ensure a positive experience for your child each time and eventually build toward the actual appointment. For more information on how to carry this out, you may want to check out our blog on haircuts, where we cover this in more detail.

The dentist was never a trip I looked forward to as a child. I still don’t enjoy the experience, so I can only imagine how difficult it must be for someone who struggles with transitions, sitting still, loud noises, textures, and the ability to communicate needs. As parents, I know this can be just as much of a dreaded trip for you. Hopefully, these tips will help support your child and help the process go a little smoother.