Many people feel anxiety when they go to the dentist. For a child with autism, the sensory elements of the dentist might overwhelm them and make them resist visits. However, through home practice, familiarization appointments, and support, most children with autism or other communication disorders can overcome their anxieties about dental care and enjoy positive appointments for years to come.
I’ve been practicing family dentistry for 17 years. I always try to make patients as comfortable as possible during visits. I share this list of tips for a successful and positive dental experience with professionals who treat children with autism, as well as the patients’ family.
Practice before the visit. Role-playing a dental visit in advance gives the child a sense of what to expect. It also gives parents an idea of potential challenges the child might experience. Make the activity fun for the child by turning a dental visit into a game of pretend. The speech-language pathologist or other professional acts as the dentist, while the child gets to be the patient, of course. They can lie back in a reclining chair or on a couch and open their mouth wide. This gives them a sense of what a trip to the dentist will feel like. You can also use this time to talk about the importance of regular dental visits and good oral hygiene.
Schedule a familiarization appointment. One great way to help a child with autism work through anxieties is by scheduling a familiarization appointment with their dentist. These appointments involve parent and child visiting the dental office before any work gets done to the teeth. This allows them to meet staff members and get a sense of the office. If needed, schedule multiple appointments until the child feels comfortable enough to receive care. Most dental offices will happily schedule these appointments for patients and families.
Discuss any concerns. SLPs and other professionals can reassure children and their caregivers that good preparation can make their dental appointment go well. List reasons why going to the dentist is important and listen to the child’s concerns and fears. Children with autism experience a lot of anxiety about the unknown, so work through ways to make some of those overwhelming emotions feel manageable. Let them process the sensory elements of a dental visit as well, including loud noises, strange tastes and smells, and bright lights. Work through each possible challenge until the child gets used to them.
With enough preparation and support, a child with autism can experience a positive dental appointment.
Greg Grillo, DDS, has two decades of experience as a dental practitioner, including serving as a dental officer in the Navy. He specializes in emergency dentistry and writes about evidence-based practice for the Dentably blog.