Taking a child to the dentist can be a very stressful experience for both parents and children. For children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) or other developmental disabilities who have difficulties with sensory stimuli, communication, and increased levels of anxiety, the stress is even greater. From the time spent in the waiting room combined with new sounds and smells, to close interaction with dentists and dental equipment, stress levels can reach an all-time high.
Anxiety may be caused by various elements such as the fear of unknown, sensory sensitivities, and communication difficulties. Children may display noncompliant, impulsive, and restless behaviors when they are unable to communicate their feelings of anxiety while meeting new people or going to public places due to sensitivity issues such as tactile defensiveness and auditory sensitiveness.
Here are the parents’ top concerns when taking their child with ASD to the dentist:
- Will the dentist visit be successful or upsetting?
- Will my child be affected by the different noises or odors?
- Will my child be able to communicate, if needed?
- Will my child experience high levels of anxiety?
- Will I be able to find dental specialists near me trained to serve children with special needs?
Here are some great ways to make your dental visit a success:
- Prepare your child for the dentist visit as early as possible.
It will be best for the parent, the child, and the dentist to meet and develop a plan before the official visit. Inform the child about dental visits as early as possible, as waiting for the last minute can lead to extreme anxiety. Communicate and educate the child about the purpose of the visit to help reduce anxiety levels. Try using a visual support, such as a calendar, to explain date of the visit or days remaining until the check-up.
- Talk to the dentist about your child’s special needs.
Tell the dentist as much as you can about your child’s sensory sensitivities, including behavioral strategies that have been successful in the past. If this is your child’s first visit to the dentist, it is always better to ask for help from staff. Depending on your child’s personal needs, here are some tips you can share with the dentist:
- Don’t approach or touch my child without informing him/her or asking permission.
- Be cognizant of my child’s intrapersonal space.
- Speak slowly as information processing takes time. Use simple and short sentences while communicating.
- Provide answers to all questions asked by my child as not getting answers can create anxiety and mental tension.
- Tell my child what you will be doing. Showing equipment to be used during the check-up can help my child calm down and stay relaxed.
- Consider sensory strategies.
Here are some great strategies for making your child’s dentist visit a successful one:
- Use headphones to block background sounds.
- Use music for distraction and as calming strategy.
- Ask whether the sounds in the room could be reduced.
- Have the child wear a weighted vest or carry a weighted bag.
- Bring a weighted blanket in the car to calm the child.
- Use TheraBand or resistive tubes to stretch the body after a check-up.
- Wobble cushion or wobble wedge can be added to a dental chair with dentist’s support if the child feels comfortable having it.
- Stress balls can help child to reduce stress and anxiety in different settings.
- Provide fidgets to reduce anxiety.
Fidgets are the best source to keep the child focused on a task. It helps reduce anxiety levels, and keeps the child calm and his/her mind diverted. Different fidgets can be used according to developmental age groups: key chains, finger squeezers, giant nut and bolt, and Blue Tack can be used by teens or adolescents for challenging in-hand manipulation skills and fine motor control, whereas fleece bags, chewy bangle bracelets, and Play-Doh can be provided to young ones for play and engagement purpose.
- Try visual reminders.
Pictorial presentation is always helpful for an individual to understand the sequence of events and know what will come next. Visual reminders reduce stress, anxiety, and ambiguity. It helps a child stay organized and well informed. Visual schedules may be used to depict the steps involved in brushing one’s teeth and what steps are involved in completing a dental procedure.
- Keep up with oral hygiene.
Children should brush their teeth for two minutes, twice a day. It is essential to supervise children until they are seven or eight years old. It is important to choose toothpaste and mouthwashes with the amount of fluoride, which helps prevent tooth decay. The toothbrush should have a small head to ensure brushing around the back of the mouth easily.
- Try an electric toothbrush.
Electric toothbrushes are much easier to manipulate around the teeth and encourage the child to brush his/her teeth. They should be used by children who have oral hyposensitivity for awakening the oral sensory receptors. These toothbrushes help control drooling and provide massage and sweeping within the oral cavity.
- Sand timers are a good visual tool.
Sand timers and other timers are an excellent visual tool for teaching children how long to brush their teeth. They can encourage the child to brush regularly and develop dental hygiene habits early.
- Use a mirror to check on progress.
A mirror can help children and parents examine the teeth to ensure they have been cleaned well.
National Autistic Society, UK
Autism Speaks Family Services Community Connections
Sensory Integration Network, UK
Oral Healthcare for the Dyspraxic Child (Anna Vaguhan)
Aditi Srivastava (MOT, PGC in Sensory Integration) is a London-based pediatric occupational therapist who has been working with children with special needs for five years. She has a master’s degree in pediatric occupational therapy and certification in sensory integration from Sensory Integration Network, United Kingdom. She has authored an information booklet on Dyspraxia for educating parents and promulgate Dyspraxia awareness at her workplace. Besides being a dynamic occupational therapist, she is also an author of the blog RISING HORIZONS, where diverse children-related subjects are discussed. She writes on significant sensory issues, sensory integration strategies, parenting tips, classroom suggestions, and anger management problems.
This article was featured in Issue 65 – Back-To-School Transitions