Teeth brushing can be a huge challenge to parents of autistic children! It is also one of the most common challenges. Brushing teeth is a sensory experience, and for a lot of children it isn’t a very nice one!
Some children suffer from hyposensitivity and they will have little awareness of what’s going on in their mouths. This can make them very anxious about anything related to their mouth.
Other children can be hyper sensitive which means they are overly sensitive in their mouths. Touch can be be perceived as painful for these children.
The smell, texture and taste of the toothpaste, the feel of the toothbrush and the invasion of their personal space can make it a painful and unpleasant experience, often leading to sensory overload , and meltdown.
Its no wonder so many autistic children end up refusing to clean their teeth!
Unfortunately cleaning teeth is a necessary part of life and as any parent of an autistic child will tell you, dental appointments are not fun!
So what can you do to get your child to brush their teeth?
Here are some great ideas!
Try different brushes
There are toothbrushes out there with soft bristles or silicone bristles which some children may tolerate more than a normal brush. Baby toothbrushes may be easier to use. Three sided soft toothbrushes for SEN can be bought on amazon or ebay for around three pounds and might be worth a try.
If your child likes vibrations then consider trying an electric toothbrush.
As a compromise to keep your child’s teeth clean whilst building up to cleaning them properly you could try a fuzzy brush. Fuzzy brush is a chewable toothbrush which may be a compromise for a while. Some children who like the sensory feedback from chewing things may benefit from trying a fuzzy brush.
Experiment with toothpaste
Some toothpastes can taste very strong, especially mint flavours and this can actually be painful for some children. Different flavours are available from supermarkets.kids toothpaste can be strawberry, orange or even banana flavoured and sometimes toothpaste for sensitive teeth can taste less strong.
There are also toothpastes which don’t foam and have no flavour such as Oranurse.
Try using warm water
The cold of the water may be causing your child’s sensory issues. It is fine to try cleaning teeth with warmer water. Some children may find this easier to tolerate.
Brush teeth together
let your child see you brush your teeth often and offer them a toothbrush too.
Singing or stories
Try having a toothbrush song, a special silly song that you sing at teeth brushing time. When the song finishes so does the brushing. A musical toothbrush will do the same.
Tell toothbrush stories. As you brush your child’s teeth make up a silly story that lasts the length of the tooth brushing.
Count teeth as you brush
If your child likes numbers this is a good idea. Count out loud how many teeth your child has as you brush them.
Let your child brush their teeth then you brush them.
Let your child brush your teeth or a toy
Give your child a toothbrush and allow them to brush your teeth while you brush theirs!
Alternatively brush a favourite toys teeth, improvise if the toy doesn’t have teeth – they can still be cleaned with a toothbrush! The toy could even help clean your child’s teeth if that is something they would respond to.
Try brushing teeth while your child has a distraction such as a favourite game, video or toy. Alternatively try brushing in front of a mirror so your child can see what is happening in their mouth.
Make cleaning teeth part of your routine!
If you use picture prompts to show your child what’s happening in the day then include a toothbrushing picture. You can even make a picture chart showing the stages of brushing teeth and point to them or tick them off as they are coming up.
Build it up gradually
Try playing with a toothbrush, then brushing with no paste, then introducing paste slowly. Brush for a few seconds the first time and build up slowly to two minutes over a week or so. You can even start with just brushing one tooth and the next day brush two etc.
Give your child something they like straight after cleaning their teeth as a reward. Its better if this isn’t edible as that defies the point of cleaning them but a sticker maybe or a smiley face on a special chart.
I hope some of these ideas work for you and your child. It is also useful to know that if nothing is working for you then you can ask for a referral to an occupational therapist trained in oral motor therapy. They will be able to evaluate your child and situation and come up with a treatment plan, especially tailored to your child.
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