Every child needs to have regular check-ups with a dentist—preferably one that is experienced working with kids. Finding a dentist can be an extra challenge, however, if your son or daughter happens to be on the spectrum. In fact, an article in the Journal of Pediatric Dentistry reported that almost half of the parents of children with autism spectrum disorder described their child’s dental health as fair or poor.
Here are some things to keep in mind when trying to find a dentist for your child who is on the spectrum:
Autism and the Dentist’s Office
First, realize that children with autism or who are on the autism spectrum will experience a dental visit a little differently from most kids. The sights, sounds, and physical sensations can easily cause sensory overload. Because of that, some kids will find the things in a dentist’s office fascinating—but more likely than not, most kids with autism will find an office visit confusing and scary.
For example: A dentist’s office will also have a lot of novel sounds. There will be machines that whir, buzz, and bubble; people answering the phone to set appointments; sounds of other people getting their teeth cleaned. Adults and most kids can quickly dismiss these noises as just so much “background noise.” A child on the spectrum, however, might zero in on these noises—and might well find them unsettling.
There are also a lot of tactile sensations that come with dental work. Even a simple teeth cleaning can involve vibrations, brushing, and scraping, not to mention wetness. Again, while most adults and kids accept these as normal, children that are not neurologically normal might be especially sensitive to these sensations. They might not tolerate them, simply because there is a dentist or dental hygienist sitting in the chair next to them.
Are There Specialist Dentists that Serve Children on the Spectrum?
Given the unique challenges that come with serving a child on the autism spectrum, one would think there would be dentists who specialize in serving this population.
To date, there is no specific designation or training for dentists who wish to serve children on the autism spectrum. However, some dentists will advertise the fact that they work with such children. Others may not advertise directly but will have experience with children on the spectrum.
How to Find a Dentist Willing to Work with Your Child
The best strategy to finding a dentist who can work with your child is to find good pediatric dentists in your area, and then call and ask about their experience serving children who are on the spectrum. (You can use our own dentist finder tool to begin your search.)
Specifically, you should ask the office directly if they have experience with children who are on the spectrum (or have autism spectrum disorder). Also ask if they have special procedures for children so identified. Some of these could include:
- Scheduling appointments at a consistent time of day,
- Requesting the same dental hygienist each time, for the sake of consistency,
- Minimizing extraneous sounds in the office, where possible,
- Lowering the lights (as much as is safe),
- Allowing you, the parent, to accompany your son or daughter in the exam room,
- Explaining the various procedures in concrete language your child can understand,
- Allowing the use of a therapy band or fidget device during the examination,
- Allowing your child to see or even handle a few basic tools to limit his or her fear of them.
Be aware that some dentists might not feel they can accommodate your child and make the experience a positive one. Don’t feel angry or slighted: They are being honest about the services they can, and cannot, provide. Thank them for their time and move on to the next dentist on your list.
Preparing Your Child
Once you find a dentist that can suit you and your child’s needs, you should begin the process of preparing your child for the visit.
With your child, go over what will happen during the visit. Do so in very concrete terms. For example, you might explain the waiting room, and what’s in it. You then might describe the chair and the tools. You don’t need to overwhelm your child with details; just provide enough so that things seem somewhat familiar during that first visit.
During the visit, you will want your child to have something familiar. A favorite toy or favorite book can be a great thing to take along. Some kids even have a special book that they can take and read, but only for dental visits. This helps make the visit special.
Modeling can sometimes be a good way to show a child what to expect, and what is expected of him or her. If a sibling or friend has an appointment, let your child come along. This not only will get him or her accustomed to the office, but will also allow your child to watch the procedure being done on someone else (and how the other child reacts—appropriately!).
Visual cues can be helpful as well. For example, you could obtain pictures outlining the process and cueing certain steps. This can help your child know what to expect, and keep track of when the visit will be over.
Daily brushing is also an important part of dental care. For some children on the autism spectrum, this isn’t a big deal. But for others, it can be a struggle. If your child is old enough to brush by himself or herself but fails to do so at least twice a day, you might want to consider working with a behavioral analyst or occupational therapist to get your child into the brushing habit.