My last trip to the dentist went like this…
First I chased my son round the house with a toothbrush and then decided to give up on trying to clean his teeth before we left as it would make him on edge.
Fortunately the dentist is on the same street as my house so getting there wasn’t too eventful.
Getting in the door however was a bit more difficult, especially as my daughter decided she wasn’t coming in because of the smell and the fact its a dentist.
After filling in the necessary forms and persuading my daughter to come inside we were asked to wait on the plastic chairs.
Cue almost melt down from my son who doesn’t like the feel of the chairs and also doesn’t understand the need to wait!
After what felt like ten years of being tutted at by various other patients in the waiting room and trying to pretend they don’t exist and keep my kids calm at the same time, the dentist came to take us through.
My son went first. He refused to sit back in the chair and refused point blank to open his mouth. The poor dentist let me hold him and then carried on trying to get in his mouth. He opened his mouth, she put her finger in, he bit her as hard as he could!
Next it was my daughter’s turn. As soon as she found out she was having a turn she threw up! The dentist refused to see her as she thought she was ill and wouldn’t accept my explanation of “she always does this at the dentist”
So we left, needless to say with no stickers, no smiles and having had no one look at any teeth!
Its funny looking back on it but so many parents have similar stories around dentists and their autistic children!
So what makes it so difficult for an autistic child to visit the dentist?
Firstly, not understanding why! Going to see a stranger with lots of odd equipment who wants to look in your mouth is weird enough without adding the fact you have to lie on a chair that moves up and down and have a bright light shining in your face.
Then there are the sensory issues surrounding the dentist. There are the smells, the bright lights, tastes and sounds, and the fact someone is poking around in your mouth! The cold of the instrument and even someone touching inside the mouth can be painful for children.
There is also the fact that the dentist has to enter personal space to do their job properly. For autistic children the closeness may be extremely distressing.
So what can we do to help children with autism or sensory processing disorders to manage a much needed dental check up?
Here are some ideas to try:
Warn your child about the check up
It is good to warn an autistic child in advance and use a visual calendar if needed so they have plenty of time to get used to the idea.
Help your child know what to expect
If the child has never been to the dentist before there are a few ways you can prepare them.
You can use social stories eg what happens at the dentist and why we need to go for a check-up. You could also look at videos about dental visits with your child (make sure you watch them first). Consider making a picture board with a sequence of pictures of what will happen. Include a final picture of a treat your child likes that they will get after visiting the dentist.
You can role play going to the dentist over the days before your check up. Practice having your child lie on the sofa. Get them to put their legs out straight and open their mouth wide. Practice keeping mouths open while you count their teeth. You can also buy things to use to check a doll or favourite toys teeth with your child such as a small torch and dental mirror.
Organise a visit
You might also consider taking your child to visit the dentist on a different day, before their appointment so they can see where they will be going and even maybe meet the dentist. Or arrange for them to have an appointment a few days after a sibling so they can watch first.
Prepare the dentist
let the dentist know in advance that you are bringing an autistic child who may be very anxious and explain your child’s needs to them.
Take comfort items or distractions
Consider taking a favourite toy to hold or screen to look at during the appointment.
Prepare for sensory needs
If your child struggles with sound then take ear defenders or if you think the light above the chair could irritate them, sunglasses might help. A stress ball could also be useful.
Help your child know what is happening next
Consider taking a laminated checklist of what will happen step by step so you and your child can tick each step off during the appointment and know what’s happening next.
Hopefully some of these ideas might make it easier to visit the dentist with your child. You can also
contact your local Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG) or Health Board who may know of dentists in your area who have experience of working with people with additional needs.
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