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Autistic Children and Pediatric Dentistry

March 20, 2023 ABC Children's Dentistry

Dental visits can be challenging for children on the autism spectrum.  While some children adapt very well to the dentist’s chair, others are frightened or find the visit difficult to tolerate.  There are quite a number of factors that contribute to this issue, including physical touch, lights, sounds and the introduction of new people and scenarios.  For parents, patients and staff, this can all add up to an unproductive or unpleasant experience.

However, there are ways to help make your child’s dental visit more enjoyable and productive.  With the help of a professional who understands how to work with your child, a visit to the dentist does not have to be frightening or painful!

How Can My Dentist and I Work Together To Help My Child? 

According to the Association for Science in Autism Treatment, a growing body of research is focusing on strategies to help autistic children tolerate medical treatments through the principles of applied behavior analysis. Some of these studies focus on “escape and reward,” in which the child is given a reward based on cooperative behavior; this has proven effective in some situations.  In others, non-contingent escape, in which breaks were scheduled regularly regardless of compliance to give the child time to regroup, were also shown to be effective.  Finally, some studies used distraction, participation, video and desensitization techniques to help children escape overstimulation.

The problem for most parents and dentists is that, while these techniques work in some cases, they are unlikely to work in every case.  Each child must be evaluated individually to find what works for him or her.  There are several things you and your dental professional can do to design the right program for your child, including:

  • Do a trial run. One of the best ways to test out different methods of dental exam modification is to try them out in a non-threatening way.  Your dentist may be willing to schedule an “exam,” in which he or she has the staff do a run-through with the child of what will happen, allowing them to handle the equipment, sit in the chair, and become familiar with the techniques and tools that will be used.  This could also be done at home, with a make-believe dental “practice” chair set up to run through the visit several times before the actual day of the exam.
  • Try out some different techniques. Another possible approach is to try out some different techniques such as frequent breaks, reward-based cooperation, and distraction to see what works best during exams.  Talk to your dentist about options available and make a plan to try each during the exam to see which works best for your child.
  • Bring the familiar into the unfamiliar. You may already be using familiar objects such as a toy to calm your child when in unfamiliar surroundings.  It is perfectly okay to talk to your dentist about incorporating that item into your child’s dental exam.  For example, if your child has a favorite stuffed animal, it might be a good idea for the animal to have a dental exam at the same time as the child!  This type of “play” can engage your child and distract him or her from sights, sounds and other stimuli that could otherwise be overwhelming.

At ABC Children’s Dentistry, we work with parents of children to ensure that every child has a pleasant, safe dental experience.  Give us a call today to talk about how we can help you and your child enjoy good dental health and an enjoyable dental visit!