Advances In Dental Care For Autistic Kids Mean More Understanding, Less Upset

Are you the parent of a child with autism? If so, you know how difficult it is to shepherd autistic children through the most routine life events: grocery shopping, a sibling's school play, a big family dinner. Perhaps one of your family's big challenges is getting your child to cooperate with a routine dental cleaning. You're not alone. However, pediatric dentistry is beginning to make some significant accommodations for autistic kids.

The challenge

Autistic children tend to overreact to sounds and movements. Some do not like to be touched or approached by unfamiliar people. Responses to uncomfortable sensations or sounds include shrieking and flailing, both highly upsetting to those who are not familiar with the disorder. Understandably, in a dentist's office these reactions can be quite disruptive to other patients and office staff. In one study, dentists who felt they had inadequate academic preparation for treating autistic kids acknowledged they were reluctant to include them in their practices.

The result

Because routine cleanings and exams can pose big difficulties for autistic children, their parents, and dentists, it is no surprise that kids with autism are twice as likely to have dental problems than those who are able to sit quietly through a cleaning and exam. The reasons for this are three-fold:

  1. With so many emotional and physical ups and downs confronting them every day, parents may not diligently attend to the oral care of a special needs child.

  2. The child may not brush or floss adequately if not well-supervised.

  3. Because of how monumentally difficult routine dental visits are to get through, parents may avoid bringing their autistic children in for preventive care.

In a 2011 study comparing the dental health of autistic and nonautistic children, those with autism had more cavities, more need for dental restorations, and poorer overall oral health than those without the disorder. In fact, 97% of the autistic children in the study had gingivitis.

The trend

The good news? The state of dentistry for children with autism is improving. For instance, Autism Speaks, an advocacy group, has developed a video and accompanying informational materials for dentists about treating autistic children. A  nationwide directory providing contact information for dentists with experience in treating kids with autism is available for parents. And the Occupational Therapy department at the University of Southern California has published practical suggestions for dentists so they can reduce the sensory overload of dental visits. These recommendations include

  • softer, colored lighting

  • soothing music

  • specially developed "butterfly wraps," thick blankets that promote calming

Because of these advances, going to the dentist no longer has to be a time of turmoil for all involved.

Practical tips

Although you can now expect to be met with knowledgeable assistance when you schedule your child's next cleaning, there are practical things you can do to prepare beforehand and support him/her during the appointment.

  • Visit the dental office to meet the dentist and the staff. Call ahead to ask if someone will show your child where he/she will sit and what equipment will be used.

  • Tell your child what to expect. Do this simply and often, explaining step by step what the visit will entail and why.

  • Stay at your child's side during the appointment.

  • Because familiar sounds promote comfort, bring your child's favorite music or movies (with headphones) to the appointment.

  • Set an upbeat, relaxed tone for the visit. If your child sees that you are at ease in these surroundings, it will help his/her state of mind.

Autism challenges you and your child every day. Dental care shouldn't. Connect with the new resources that will help make routine appointments just that--and watch your child's oral health improve.