Dental Care Strategies for Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder

Most parents will tell you, taking a child to see the dentist can be a stressful event. Kids rarely look forward to dental check-ups and teeth cleanings. Many children have irrational fears associated with the dentist. Yet, on some level, most children understand the importance of good dental care and having cavity-free teeth, even if they need to be reminded to brush every day.

For children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), a trip to the dentist can be an entirely different experience. Dental visits pose significant sensory challenges that can create significant stress for all involved. From bright lights and strange smells to uncomfortable sounds and sensations, the entire dental experience can be perplexing and downright overwhelming.  

The Temptation to Put Off Dental Care
Parents of children with ASD face countless challenges each day. Even the smallest tasks require a significant investment of time, energy and patience. For many children with ASD, oral hygiene can be an enormous daily struggle. According to a study published in Pediatric Dentistry, almost half of all parents of children with ASD assess their child’s dental health as fair or poor. Often, by the time they have their first visit with the dentist, many children with ASD already have dental issues that require immediate treatment. Parents who’ve experienced difficult doctor visits may find themselves procrastinating on taking their child to see the dentist.

The three keys to a successful dental visit are education, preparation and communication. It’s essential for parents to prepare the dentist, their child and themselves for an upcoming dental visit. The more lead time, the better, as there are many issues to sort through in anticipation of a dental appointment. It goes without saying that choosing the right dentist is the first and most critical step. Checking reviews online and speaking with other parents of children with ASD will provide useful feedback on local dentists.

Preparing for a Dental Visit
The burden of preparation for a dental visit falls on the parents. Some pediatric dentists who work with children with ASD recommend bringing the child to the dentist’s office well in advance of the appointment so the child can meet the dentist and staff and be familiarized with the sights and sounds of a dental office. Daily routines of brushing teeth and performing mock dental examinations will help desensitize the child to the procedures the dentist will perform. Reading children’s books about a trip to the dentist is another great way to reduce apprehension and promote understanding.

Parents of children with ASD understand living with autism is a never-ending learning process that includes dealing with everyday tasks such as dental care. Self-education is essential when dealing with a disorder that is so complex. A Dental Professional’s Took Kit, available on the Autism Speaks website, contains useful information on all aspects of dental treatment of children with ASD. Though it is geared to dental professionals, parents can benefit tremendously from the information in the tool kit.

It’s also important to note that sensory challenges are very common amongst children with ASD. Part of minimizing the stress of at-home dental care is to find the right mix of products that produces the least amount of stress. Strong-flavored mint toothpaste can have a burning effect that can often be overwhelming. As well, hard-bristled toothbrushes can be uncomfortable. A mild toothpaste used with an ultra-soft, rubber bristle brush can help reduce negative sensations which can help promote healthy, dental habits and limit daily struggles.   

Of course, communication is the key to any positive dental experience, and it’s often said that communication is a two-way street, In this case, it’s more like a four-way intersection between parents, dentist, staff and patient. Alleviating anxiety with constant, effective communication will ensure dental appointments and ongoing dental care will have the best chance for success. With the right approach and a little patience, regular routines for good dental hygiene can be established that will have lifelong benefits for children with ASD.

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