Tips to Prepare Your Autistic Child for the Dentist
For a child with autism, a routine dentist visit can be an overwhelming experience filled with strange sounds, bright lights, and unfamiliar faces. But there are plenty of ways for parents to prepare their autistic child for that dental visit, says Ahmed El-Maghraby, DMD, MPH, FAGD, clinical care coordinator at Midwestern University Dental Institute in Downers Grove. He trains future dentists to take care of the unique needs of children with autism.
âBecause autism involves sensory issues, a visit to the dentist can often cause sensory overload,â says Dr. El-Maghraby. âThere are new people, unusual textures, someone touching their face, gloves in their mouth. All of these new sensory experiences can create a challenge, so it’s important for parents to prepare their child for success.
It is quite possible that your child had their first visit to the dentist at a very young age, but now it is probably only a distant memory. If this is the case, do not assume that your child will remember sitting in the dental chair. Instead, take the time to prepare your child for the experience.
A child who’s already used to brushing their teeth may be more inclined to let dental staff look inside their mouth, and that’s a big win, says Dr. El-Maghraby. But what else can parents do before the visit? Here, we share Dr. El-Maghraby’s advice on preparing their autistic child for a successful and stress-free visit to the dentist.
Start with a story
If necessary, parents can prepare their child for this visit to the dentist by recording the appointment on the child’s visual schedule and highlighting the visit in conversations leading up to the day of the appointment.
âYou can say, ‘Wednesday you’ll go to school, Thursday you’ll have speech therapy and Friday you’ll go to the dentist,â says Dr El-Maghraby. Allow enough time for your child to recognize the event and answer their questions using positive language. Make sure to schedule the date so that it doesn’t conflict with a privileged activity like a special class that they enjoy.
If you use social stories to familiarize your child with visits to the barber, doctor, library, or other community scenarios, using a social story about the dentist visit is a great way to share what the dentist will be like. experience while putting your child in the story. . You can also read books together that describe the experience.
âA children’s book will project good images of what is going on. This will illustrate how you go to the office, wait in the waiting room until your name is called, walk into the exam room and meet the dental assistant, and sit in the silly chair that goes up and down. Â», Dr El- explains Maghraby. “The office may even send you a detailed history pack in advance so that they can gather information about your child, and some offices will send a book for you to read together.”
Buckle Up Your Child’s ABA Therapist
Be sure to share with your child’s ABA therapist that they will have a dentist appointment soon and ask for their help in preparing your child. âThe ABA therapist may have toy tools your child can touch, a flashlight to show him what lights look like, and even putty he can use to explain orthodontic impressions,â says Dr. El-Maghraby.
Just as your child’s ABA therapist will work to desensitize your child, you can help by asking the dental office if you can bring your child one or more times before the visit. âIt can help your child get over that fear and make the experience less overwhelming for them,â he says. “It’s helpful if they can come into the office, have a visit, sit in the chair and see if they can tolerate having the lights on their face.”
Because it is reassuring for some children with autism to know what and who to expect on the day of the visit, get a list of office staff, with photos if you can. Or check out this information online and talk about who your child might meet.
Share as much information as you can
Dental offices know how to accommodate their patients’ preferences, so don’t be afraid to share little details about your child to make the visit more successful. If your child prefers the fruity toothpaste or likes to wear sunglasses and headphones, these are all good information to share with the staff before the visit. Does your child like to have the television on for distraction or is irritated by noise? Let them know.
Ditto for the rewards they can offer children for a job well done. If your child prefers dinosaurs to stickers, slip a dinosaur in your pocket and give it to the dental staff to present to the child, if you think it will leave a good impression.
For some children, modeling the experience first is helpful. âMaybe the dentist can bring mom or a brother to have their exam and cleaning done first so the child can see what’s going on,â suggests Dr. El-Maghraby. If your child likes to feel under a weighted blanket, ask the dental office if they can try using the heavy lead x-ray vest during exam and cleaning.
While it may be more helpful for a parent to be in the same room, help the dentist do their job by taking a step back. âWhen a child is at the dentist, it is important that there is only one authority in the room. Let that person be the dentist and let the dentist get you into the conversation, âhe says.
Adopt good oral hygiene
Help your child have a relatively easy visit by paying attention to their dental health throughout the year. âMake brushing your teeth priority and celebrate the little wins,â says Dr. El-Maghraby. âIf your child isn’t comfortable brushing their teeth, keep trying. When they can tolerate a second of brushing, work up to three seconds, then the entire lower part, and possibly add toothpaste. At the very least, try wiping your mouth with gauze to clean their teeth.
A diet of only very occasional sweet treats can also help. âDon’t reward your child with sugar and candy or a second scoop of ice cream. A good diet can help prevent even the onset of cavities, âexplains Dr. El-Maghraby.
Finally, always talk about dental visits using positive language. Set the expectation that your child’s date will be a good experience with lots of positive discussions.
âWe are seeing children who have never been to the dentist before arriving already scared of the way their parents talk about their own experiences,â says Dr El-Maghraby. âRemember to always tell your child that they will be having fun, that the dentist and staff will be nice, that they will count their teeth and then receive a treat.
Learn more about the Midwestern University Dental Institute at www.mwuclinics.com