Many autistic children are horrified by the bright lights, unfamiliar sounds, and weird smells common in a typical dental office. That white-coated, masked stranger hovering over their face can be a bit much to process.
Sometimes general anesthesia or restraints are needed to complete treatment, traumatizing both the child and caregivers. This is obviously not the go-to solution to lessen a child’s fear of the dentist.
Preventive dentistry is necessary to ward off future problems. So what can caregivers do prior to the visit and in the dental chair itself, to make appointments less stressful for the young autistic patient?
If you’re preparing for the child’s first visit to the dentist, take them for an office visit beforehand to meet the dentist and the staff. Show the child the examining room and the equipment the dentist will use.
Letting them take a peek before the actual appointment allows them to familiarize themselves with the surroundings before they’re in the stressful situation of an examination.
Be sure to prepare the dental staff in advance as well. Inform them of your child’s specific needs so they can make any needed adaptations. It’s also a good idea to book a double appointment so the dentist won’t run late and feel rushed.
A series of pictures or photos depicting a typical visit to the dentist is helpful for some children. With each picture, you can explain the process step-by-step, so the child knows what to expect next and when each step is complete. Some caregivers also include a reward picture at the end of each image sequence, so the child has the incentive to see it through.
If a child already has had a negative experience at the dentist, many caregivers will understandably avoid revealing an upcoming appointment until zero hour. Although it may cause an adverse reaction initially, it’s best to be upfront. If the child has trouble with the concept of time, you can clarify the date by writing it on a calendar and counting down the days.
Planning a dental visit for an autistic child can be challenging, but many problems can be eliminated or minimized by good communication. When everyone knows what to expect, you, your child, and the dental team can look forward to a positive experience.