Getting any child to the dentist could be a bit of an adventure – the memory of the sound of a drill in action, the scent of non-bubblegum-flavored toothpaste, the sight of an adult with a sharp object headed for their mouth – all of that combined could make any kid nervous.
Now think of a child on the autism spectrum disorder. With so many sensory elements, is it any wonder that the noises, smells, lights and activities could cause a spike in their anxiety levels?
The wonderful news is that any dentist worth their salt will be more than patient with your child when it comes time for a routine cleaning or another necessary visit, but it doesn’t mean your challenges as a parent or a caregiver just magically fade away because your dentist has compassion and patience for your autistic child.
Here are some tips and techniques on how to help your autistic child overcome the sensory issues that could accompany a visit to the dentist.
Get them ready.
Kids with autism spectrum disorder thrive on routine. They function best when there’s regularity and when they’re faced with things they’re prepared for and already know about. But even though we might consider dentist’s visits “regular,” meaning we likely have a reminder to see our fellow neighborhood dentist every six to nine months, to the autistic child, that’s not regular at all.
Well before your visit, get your child accustomed to what they might be able to expect at the dentist. Have a “rehearsal” of sorts, or role play at home. Have your child lay back on the couch, their head slightly elevated, feet out and hands on their belly. Ask them to open their mouth as wide as possible, even shooting a soft flashlight above them (so that the glaring light at the dentist isn’t so foreign). Brush their teeth for them in that position (you can choose an electric brush if at all possible), and talk to them while you’re doing it. Floss their teeth, and give them a little cup of water to spit into a bucket next to the couch when you’re all done.
There. You’ve just rehearsed their dentist’s appointment!
Some dentists do offer what’s called a desensitization appointment, during which your child has the opportunity to meet everyone at the office first, and giving them the chance to look around before their actual appointment.
Give them a visual.
On top of your practice run(s), expose your child to even more positive ideas about the dentist. There are picture books that detail the dentist’s visit, or look up YouTube videos of dental visits with kids. You may even find a photo online of your dentist or hygienist.
Many dentists have a TV screen near the ceiling for the patient to watch while they’re having their procedure, so you can ask your dentist ahead of time if they wouldn’t mind switching the channel to a show your child will respond well to; if they don’t have a TV or any of the channels your child might enjoy, bring along a tablet or portable DVD player so your child can be distracted while they’re getting their treatment.
Don’t use force.
If you’ve done all the prep work you can, and your child gets to the appointment and is still apprehensive (or is having a full-out meltdown), don’t proceed with the appointment. Forcing your child to go through something that for them, is nearly intolerable, will cause feelings of anger, fear, hatred and even more anxiety.
Take it slow, and try again soon. If the appointment goes as scheduled, but in the middle of the procedure your child begins to get uncomfortable, you can ask your dentist to slow down or stop altogether. Your child will learn that the dentist is not the enemy, and their goal is not to “get the job done” just because. Their goal is to help make your child comfortable, so that oral health isn’t a big, bad, scary thing forever.