How to Take the Worry Out of Appointments with Your ASD Child

Do you dread taking your child with ASD to the dentist? Is a trip to get a haircut out of the question?
Try using the 3 P’s: Pretend, Practice, and Pair to take the sting out of necessary outings. With a little time and preparation, kids on the spectrum of all ages and skill levels can learn to tolerate these and other difficult appointments.


  1. Pretend: Start with acting out the challenging situation on a regular basis. Get a toy dentist or doctor kit and take turns with your child pretending to be the doctor/patient or dentist/patient. Recruit siblings, favorite stuffed animals, or family members to join in the fun.  Make a visual schedule to use during the play-acting so that you can use it for the actual activity later.
  2. Practice: How often does your child go into the dentist’s office? Probably when he has an appointment, right?  Generally these visits are few enough that the situation feels unfamiliar and possibly has negative connotations from a previous (sometimes traumatic) experience.  Talk to the office about visiting a few times leading up to a regular appointment.  Have the child interact with the receptionist, meet the doctor or hair-stylist, and sit in the chair or lie down on the table.  Familiarity can make the experience more understandable and less scary for a child.
  3. Pair: Your child may be associating a trip to the doctor with a painful shot or a hair-cut with loud clippers.  During the practice phases, start pairing the visit with something more pleasurable that he only gets to have while the appointment is going on.  For instance, bring a favorite book or character and let the child hold it while sitting in the dentist chair and then remove it when you have the child get out of the chair.  Or let the child play a preferred iPad game while you acclimate them to the clippers noise and then remove the game when you turn the clippers off.  Your child will start to associate the dentist, doctor, or hair-cut with a much more fun activity.

The 3 P’s can be modified to improve your child’s experience with any challenging, infrequent activity like getting a picture with Santa, going on an airplane, or whatever!

A Child’s Potential, Inc. is a non-profit 501 (c)(3) tax exempt organization committed to teaching families living with autism strategies to improve their children’s social, play, and communication skills so they can participate more fully in family and community life.

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This article was featured in Issue 38 – Keeping ASD Kids Healthy

Gabi Morgan

Gabi Morgan, MS, the founder and director of A Child's Potential has been working with children on the autism spectrum for over 20 years using the principles of applied behavior analysis with an emphasis on respect for the child and the family. She founded A Child's Potential, Inc. with the idea that as children move through their development, professionals may come and go, but the families want and need the skills to maximize their children's potentials throughout their lives.

  • Avatar Sara Carbonneau says:

    For a realistic first dental visit book designed for children with autism and sensory needs, check out “Melvin Goes to the Dentist.” The story is written by a pediatric dental hygienist.

  • Avatar ssbluridge says:

    What my daughter tells me she hates about both of these things is that you can’t tell them to stop when it’s too much. And it’s always too much because they are using metal stuff on her body. If there were plastic tools, she might do better. She is unable to get used to metal on her teeth or hair.

  • Avatar Patiencepleasepeople says:

    You forgot “P” for “Pre-teach the Professional”. Sadly, based on my own personal experience the professional population (dentists, doctors, orthodontists, hairdressers) DO NOT have a clear understanding about autism and the sensory issues that go along with it. The lack of patience by these people can be not only detrimental to the child, but cause undue stress on the parent that obviously does not want their child to be non-compliant 🙁

    • Avatar Sally Dunstan says:

      I highly agree to that, my son is terrified of blow dryers and the hair dresser uses it to blow the hair away, he will freak out and try to jump off the chair. Then I have to explain why he cant tolerate that noise. I just get a confused look from the hair dresser, like they don’t know what to say. which makes me feel bad for my son and his actions, even know I shouldn’t have to feel that way since its a way of life that my son leads with all his sensory issues he has. With dentists he usually has to get put to sleep, since he doesn’t like to lay down in the dentist chair or get x-rays done. this can become very overwhelming and stressful as well as upsetting for both of us to go through. 🙁

  • Avatar Laurei G. says:

    This is good advice I give to other parents. I started my son visiting the dentist at 2 years old. He has lots of sensory issues about his mouth. My dentist did not have a problem with this and worked with us. We started very small, just standing in the waiting room for a few minutes and moved up to sitting in the chair, leaning it back, seeing and touching the tools the doc would be using. When the dentist had to start working on his teeth, he did not have to be put under to have it done. They are very good with each other and my son still sees him regularly at 26 years old.

  • Avatar El mediouni says:

    At fist my child had some difficulties with the hair dresser but now he gets used to it.he communicates with him.but still does not like machines he is 5years and 3 months

  • Avatar Grace Victoria says:

    Thanks for explaining this,Surely it will help my childrens as well as me as their parent.

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