A trip to the dentist with an autistic child can be traumatic. Not only are there the usual fears associated with strangers who put their hands in your mouth, there are also strange sounds, tastes and sensations, bright lights, and occasional pain. While trips to the dentist will never be a treat, though, there are steps parents and dentists can take to prepare a child - and a dental practice - for a positive experience.
Time Required: varies
- Parents need to be aware that not all dentists are comfortable with kids on the autism spectrum. Pediatric dentists are more likely to be a good choice, but even then it's well worth your time to ask around for recommendations, interview the dentist, and visit the practice. Questions to ask include Do you work with special needs kids? How do you handle children's anxiety? Are parents allowed to stay with their children? What do you do if a child's behavior makes dental work difficult?
- Evaluate the dentist's responses carefully. Ideally, the dentist should have experience with special needs children, have specific responses to your questions about anxiety, allow parents to remain with their children, and have appropriate responses to anxiety management. Note that strapping a child to a "papoose board" to keep them immobile - unless there is a major emergency - is NOT a reasonable approach to managing a child's anxiety! Though it may work for the moment, it is likely to increase anxiety for future visits.
- Print out or prepare your own picture book or Social Story, showing and telling what will happen in the dentist's office. The About.com Guide to Dentistry has a terrific photo gallery you can print and use - or, ideally, you can take pictures in your own pediatric dentist's office. Read through the story often with your child before you go to the dentist, and bring it along when you go (you can laminate it if it's likely to become dog-eared!). It's also worthwhile giving a copy of the story to your dentist and/or hygienist, so they can use it with your child on the spot.
- Consider buying or borrowing some basic dental instruments so that your child can see, touch and interact with them before going to the dentist.
- Think about your child's comfort or discomfort with various flavors. Our son, for example, hates mint - but loves Tom's of Maine strawberry toothpaste. For several years, we brought our own toothpaste for the hygienist to use. It wasn't ideal for dental hygiene, but of course it was far better than a sensory meltdown!
- If your pediatric dentist doesn't have a video screen available for patients, consider bringing along a portable DVD player and your child's favorite video. Distracting your child from his mouth can be a very potent tool for maintaining calm!
- If your child has a problem with bright lights or loud noise, bring along sunglasses and earplugs.
- Talk with your pediatric dentist and hygienist ahead of time, to get a clear sense of their office procedure. Will you need to wait in a room with a lot of kids and noise? Will the dentist or the hygienist see your child first? Be sure there are no surprises, and come prepared with the toys, foods, videos or other comfort objects you child will need.
- Support your dentist. While it's great to have a mom or dad in the room with a child during dental work, it's not especially helpful to have mom or dad flinching, questioning the dentist, or leaping up every two seconds. Unless something truly unacceptable is going on (your child is being injured, for example), it's best to be reassuring but passive. If, after the visit, you decide you don't like the dentist - simply don't return.
- Ask questions. While you're at the dentist with your child, it's fine to ask questions - and in fact you should. If a cavity or other issue is found, get detailed information about how the dentist will treat it. If you're not sure about the appropriateness of a treatment for your child, ask for alternatives. It's important that you, as a parent, feel in control and understand the options.
- Follow up on your dentist's suggestions, with your child's special needs in mind. For example, if your dentist recommends an electric toothbrush, choose one that features a character you child loves. If your dentist recommends a fluoride rinse, choose one with a flavor your child enjoys (you can find plenty of flavors online if you search!). If your dentist recommends X-rays or sealants, learn about the procedures and prepare your child with pictures and practice ahead of time.
- Tom's of Maine produces natural fluoride toothpastes and rinses in a wide variety of flavors. It's worth checking their products for a flavor your child can tolerate.
- Earplugs made for airplane rides and headphones made to block sound can help your child cope with the noises of a dentist's office.
- Don't forget to bring along comfort objects that can help your child remain calm.
What You Need
- Pictures of a visit to the dentist
- Your child's favorite videos
- Sunglasses and earplugs if necessary
- Toothpaste and rinse in your child's preferred flavors
- A sense of humor and a willingness to work together with your child's dentist