March Newsletter | Navigating the Dental Chair: Overcoming Challenges for Children With Autism

202311_November Newsletter

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Navigating the Dental Chair: Overcoming Challenges for Children With Autism

A recent report by the Cleveland Clinic estimates that approximately half of all people experience anxiety around dental treatment—and that number is significantly higher among children with autism. Read on for tips, strategies, and free resources to help make dental care more manageable—and be sure to check out this month’s podcast episode!

Sensory Sensitivity

In this month’s episode of the Autism Annex podcast, Dr. Dennis Dunne, a pediatric dentist in private practice in Eugene, Oregon, says, “There are so many elements in the dentist’s office that can be overwhelming for kids on the spectrum—the sounds, the smells, the sights. It’s so important to be familiar with each child’s unique sensory needs so they can feel like they’re safe.” Unlike many other routines in the community, dental visits rarely happen more often than twice a year, which can make each appointment seem like a completely new experience. In her daughter Abby’s first appointment, parent and STAR trainer Julia Rockwell recalls, “That first visit, I remember we couldn't even get her to sit in the chair—that was the hardest part.”

Gradual Exposure

To help children learn what to expect and become more comfortable with the process through gradual exposure, Dr. Dunne recommends starting simple hygiene routines at home, which can include:

  • Introducing non-latex rubber gloves and massaging the outside of the teeth between the cheek and the teeth
  • Dry brushing with a soft toothbrush
  • Brushing with water only (Studies have shown that brushing with water alone can be as effective as using toothpaste, which is good news for children who may have an aversion to the taste or texture of toothpaste.)
  • Pairing brushing with another enjoyable activity

Be sure to always discuss sensory sensitivities with the dental team—oftentimes they can adjust lighting, minimize noise, and provide sensory toys.

Practice, Practice, Practice

Julia says, “Abby and I played with a toy dentist kit, we played with toothbrushes and paint because she loves art, we did role-play, and visuals were really important.” Evidence-based strategies including using visual aids, social stories, and video models are invaluable tools when preparing children for what to expect in their dental appointment. Check out this month’s free community resources:

Ask Questions

Dr. Dunne recommends communicating closely with your dental office before the first visit. Asking some important questions can help to determine whether a particular dental practice is the right fit:

  • What is your approach to communication and sensory sensitivity? Ask about their approach to sensory issues, what they do when they recognize signs of anxiety, and what they can do to tailor communication techniques to each child's needs.
  • How is the office set up? Dr. Dunne designed his office particularly with children on the autism spectrum in mind—elements include calming colors, quiet rooms, play spaces, comfortable carpet, and toys and games for positive reinforcement.
  • Do you use visual supports? Schedules, charts, or pictures can help guide children through the dental appointment and better understand and anticipate the steps involved.
  • Is your scheduling flexible? Some children may be more receptive at certain times of the day, and accommodating breaks during the appointment can make for a smoother experience.

Additional Resources

Accessing affordable dental care can be a challenge for many families; for more information on resources for low- or no-cost dental care in your area, visit the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.