Taking your child to the dentist can be an ordeal, especially for the first few times, since they are expected to let a strange person put cold metal tools into their mouths and sit still during the whole visit. For a child on the spectrum, this ordeal can be especially challenging for the family as well as the dentist. For Nicole Brown and her daughter Camryn, going to the dentist for a basic cleaning was a miserable experience. Camryn was confused and disoriented by the bright lights in her face, the strange noises the dentist’s tools made, and everything else unfamiliar in the room. She would sometimes panic and run out of the office altogether.
Ms. Brown was finally able to locate a pediatric dentist that was able to help her daughter adjust to her routine visits. Instead of suggesting that her child be sedated with anesthetics or immobilized, Dr. Luedemann-Lazar set up weekly visits to help ease Camryn to the norms of seeing the dentist. She gave her lots of breaks so that she wouldn’t get overwhelmed as well as gave incentives, with the help of mom, such as listening to a snippet of her favorite song when she sat calmly for a bit.
Now, researchers are studying how to help children on the spectrum overcome any challenges and fears they have when visiting the dentist. New programs are also being implemented to help dentists and their staff learn more about treating children with special needs. Josalyn Sewell, a dental hygienist with an autistic son, says, “There are children who are completely nonverbal, and if they have a toothache, it completely shuts them down.” This is why parents are urged to start dental care before there is an actual emergency, such as a toothache or cavity, because putting a distressed child in an unfamiliar situation never goes smoothly.
Here are some tips to help your child adjust to dental hygiene and dentist visits:
- Start Early: get your child familiar with the brushing sensation on gums before their first teeth even come in, so that when your child is ready for the toothbrush they are used to the process and sensations that come with brushing your teeth.
- Go Electric: since many children, including those not on the spectrum, have very little patience when it comes to brushing their teeth, an electric toothbrush can help parents make the most of the time they are able to actually brush their child’s teeth.
- Start Small: if getting the brush in your child’s mouth is a major obstacle, then start with baby steps; maybe brush one tooth first for a few seconds and then two or three days later, try brushing the same tooth again for a few more seconds. It’s always okay to take it slow.
- Rewards: some parents call it bribery, others call it incentives, whatever the case, introducing a small reward every time your child is able to keep the brush in their mouth or even allows the brush in their mouth can go a long way–just make sure the reward isn’t candy.
- Set up the routine: let your child know what is going to happen. This can be done through visual aides such as creating a picture schedule to supplement the words used to describe what will happen.
- Careful with toothpaste: use kid-friendly toothpaste kids, especially those still learning how to spit, and even so, only use a very small amount. Sometimes a wall-mounted toothpaste dispenser can be helpful for kids learning to handle toothpaste portions on their toothbrush.
- Set a timer: brushing until the count of ten, or to the end of a song, or setting a timer to let the child know how long they should brush for and when the brushing is okay to stop makes this activity much more manageable for both parent and child.