A Dental Visit Guide for Parents of Children with Autism

Going to the dentist can be very stressful for children with autism. Not only is a dentist’s office an unfamiliar place, the task of getting dental cleanings and dental work done can be a stressful and highly uncomfortable experience. The sensory overload that can occur from the sights, smells, and sensations that are encountered during a dental visit can exhaust and overwhelm any child, especially a child with autism.

Despite the stress of going to the dentist, getting routine dental care is important for one’s oral hygiene and overall health and well-being. Because it is so important to go to the dentist, it can be helpful to implement specific strategies with your child to help them more effectively cope with going to the dentist. We will share some recommendations with you on how to help your child with autism successfully get through dental visits and dental cleanings.

Autism and Tooth-Brushing

Children on the autism spectrum may encounter challenges in maintaining a consistent tooth-brushing routine for various reasons. One primary factor could be the uncomfortable sensory sensations associated with the act of brushing their teeth. Some children with autism might find the physical sensation of the toothbrush in their mouth unpleasant, while others may have aversions to the toothpaste they use. These factors contribute to their difficulty in adhering to regular dental hygiene practices.

Brushing their teeth can pose a challenge for kids with autism, as they often find it difficult to stick to daily routines, especially those centered around personal self-care. In order to assist these children in developing essential self-care skills, adopting an alternative approach might be necessary. This could entail implementing behavior-change strategies like positive reinforcement, shaping, and reducing the response effort. By doing so, we can support and encourage their progress in maintaining good oral hygiene practices.

Time Management and Tooth-Brushing

It can be difficult for neurotypical children to learn how long they should spend brushing their teeth. Some children with autism struggle even more with time management, including estimating the amount of time it takes to complete a task.

This means that it can be difficult for children with autism to estimate how long they should continue to brush their teeth, which is typically recommended to be about two minutes at a time. While the act of brushing one’s teeth can be unpleasant for children with autism, it is likely they won’t spend enough time brushing their teeth given that the activity is already aversive to them.

To help your child brush their teeth long enough, you might consider getting some sort of visual or audio prompt to indicate when your child has completed the allotted time for brushing their teeth.

  • Some toothbrushes come with a light that flashes for the length of time the child should brush their teeth.
  • Parents can sing a song that is approximately two minutes long to make the experience more engaging and more fun for the child.
  • You might choose to use a timer on your phone. This is a good tool to use not only for indicating when your child has completed brushing their teeth, but also for helping get them to brush their teeth for longer periods of time. For instance, you could have your child start brushing their teeth at just 15 seconds at a time. When they are able to meet that expectation, you can increase the goal to 30 seconds, 45 seconds, one minute, and so on.

Preparing for a Dental Visit

It can be helpful to be proactive in helping your child prepare for their dental visit. You might consider asking your child’s dentist if they would allow your child to come in prior to their appointment to take a tour of the dental office so that they become more familiar with the building and the things they will experience when they come in for their visit.

Visual Schedule and Social Stories

To help your child become more comfortable with going to the dentist, you could create a visual schedule or a social story describing the steps involved in going to the dentist. This might look like a list with images that goes through the process of what your child will experience at the dentist. It could also be utilized in storybook format which explains the steps page by page.

You might include things like driving to the dentist, greeting the front desk staff, sitting in the waiting room, sitting in the chair in the treatment room, getting one’s teeth brushed by the dentist, and so on.

Helping your child know what to expect can be extremely helpful in getting them more comfortable with going to the dentist.

A guide that goes over each step of visiting the dentist with each step having a small picture above it. Title read as "A Visual Schedule for a Trip to the Dentist" with each of the following steps: We will be visiting the Dentist today to make sure my teeth and mouth are nice, clean, and healthy. We'll walk into the office and tell our names to the people at the front desk. Until they call my name, we will play games, color, or watch television. The hygienist will call my name and walk with me to a room with lots of special chairs. The special chairs will move up and down and lean back so the Dentist can look in my mouth. When I sit in the chair, I'll keep my hands on my belly and put my legs and feet straight out in front of me. I'll over my mouth as wide as I can so the Dentist can look inside. There will be a bright light so they can see. I can ask for special sunglasses or close my eyes if it is too bright. The Dentist will count my teeth with a special mirror. It may tickle a little. The Dentist will take special pictures of my teeth called X-Rays. I may have to sit down in a different chair and wear a heavy apron to take these pictures. The Dentist will clean my teeth with special tools. They will show me each one and tell me what they are for before we use them. When all my teeth are clean I will spit into the sink and rinse with water. The Dentist will give me a special bag with a new toothbrush and toothpaste. I'll also get a special prize when I leave the office. At the bottom of the graphic is the logo for Children's Dental Health with the tagline "Healthy smiles start here" and the url for their website "ChildrensDentalHealth.com"

Positive Reinforcement

Incorporating positive reinforcement while utilizing a visual schedule or social story about visiting the dentist is essential. You can start by reinforcing your child for going through the schedule or story together at home. Additionally, if the dentist’s office allows you to visit beforehand, you can reinforce your child by engaging in a few of the steps prior to their actual appointment. This approach helps create a positive association with the dental experience and eases any anxieties they may have.

Visual Schedule Example

Children’s Dental Health provides an example of a visual schedule that explains what it is like to visit the dentist. You might consider using their PDF download with your child or using their document as inspiration for creating a schedule or story for your child with modifications to the steps that better suit what your child might experience and to better suit their needs and comprehension abilities.

The steps that are mentioned in the schedule provided by Children’s Dental Health include things such as the reason why the child would need to visit the dentist, speaking to the front desk staff, waiting in the waiting room and what activities might be completed while waiting – such as playing a game, going to the treatment room after the child’s name is called, sitting in the dental chair, explanation of the scenery such as bright lights and teeth-cleaning supplies, the process of getting teeth brushed by the dentist, and getting a special prize at the end of the process.

Helping Your Child Feel Comfortable at the Dentist Office

It is important to help make your child as comfortable as possible while going to the dentist. It can be helpful to bring your child’s favorite items or activities to the dentist. You might also bring an electronic device to provide entertainment and distraction. Bringing lots of preferred items and offering a prize can also be helpful.

Instead of forcing a child through the process of visiting the dentist, it is better to help them to feel more at ease with the process. With that being said, it is recommended that parents seek additional medical consultation as well as the guidance of a Board Certified Behavior Analyst for their child if going to the dentist is a difficult task for the child.

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