After 17 years of practice in North Central, Washington, nobody’s more familiar with dental anxiety than I am. For dental patients who have autism, especially children, this anxiety is compounded by challenging sensory elements such as bright lights and loud noises.
Dental care is an extremely important part of living a healthy life and living with autism shouldn’t prevent you or your child from getting the care they need. Fortunately, many dentists—including myself—are sympathetic to the needs of those who experience sensory overload. Here are a few things you can do to help overcome sensory issues while at the dentist:
Talk to your dentist
Before you schedule your first appointment, you should speak with the dental professional in question and ask them what accommodations they make for patients with sensory issues. If the answer is “none”, it’s time to find a new dentist.
However, most dental practitioners will be “on your side” and will want to make an autistic patient’s visit as comfortable as possible. Here are a few things a dentist might do to help avoid sensory overload:
- Schedule a desensitization appointment (see next section)
- Schedule the main appointment at a time that is less busy
- Use the patient’s favorite toothpaste flavor—a taste sensation that they’re already comfortable with
- Provide the patient with a soft blanket to use during the appointment
- Provide the patient with sunglasses which can help with the bright lights
- Provide the patient with headphones that will play soothing music or sounds during the appointment
If there is something specific which you know your autistic child needs to feel comfortable, tell your dentist about it and they should do whatever they can to accommodate that need.
Schedule the Desensitization Appointment
Desensitization appointments (sometimes known as “familiarization appointments”) are becoming a standard procedure in the growing field of special care dentistry and are one of the best things a dentist can do to make a patient with autism more comfortable. Despite the scary name, the idea is quite simple: a desensitization appointment is an appointment scheduled before the actual procedure in order to show the patient the operating theater and explain the function of every piece of equipment in the room. This is a great opportunity for your child to meet staff members and become familiar with the dentist office before any work is done on their teeth.
Practice at Home
If you have a child with autism, sensory calming strategies at home can be one of the most useful ways to make sure they’re comfortable with going to the dentist. You can do your own version of the “desensitization appointment” by showing your child pictures or videos of a dentist’s office, or by reading them storybooks about dental appointments. This can help your child become more familiar with the practitioner’s office and what goes on there before their actual appointment, which can help them feel more at ease and less likely to experience unpleasant sensory overload.
Some parents I’ve spoken to have also found that turning the dental visit into a role-playing game helps their child become more familiar with the unfamiliar concept. In this fun and interactive form of practice, you can play the dentist while your child takes on their actual role of the patient while you act out some of the basic steps of a dental appointment. This is a particularly good way to work through some of the physical aspects of their visit: have your child lie flat with their hands on their stomach and practice opening their mouth as wide as they can.
I understand that the dentist’s office can be an overwhelming and frightening place, but regular checkups are essential for any person’s physical health and happiness. As long as you find a dentist who is dedicated to making the visit as comfortable as possible—and I’m happy to say that I truly believe that’s the vast majority of practitioners—the appointment can become a great learning experience for both you and your child. I hope these tips will help you overcome any sensory issues you may experience so that all involved can have a positive experience the next time you visit the office.
Visit dentably.com to get in touch with Dr. Grillo.