My six-year-old daughter was just diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). She was five the last time we tried going to the pediatric dentist and it went very poorly to say the least. She was screaming and crying. At the time, we didn’t know what was going on and the dentist treated it as a behavioral problem. He insinuated it was our fault—that we weren’t good parents—and told us not to come back until we could “control our child.”
I look back on that and it just breaks my heart. I knew the dentist was way off base and that something more was going on but I couldn’t place it at the time. Now, trying to get back into things, we not only have to find a pediatric dentist who can work with kids on the spectrum, but also try to make up for a horrific first dental visit. I’m really not sure where to start. Any help would be greatly appreciated.
Big hugs to you and your little one, mama! It sounds like you’ve had quite the journey. As you probably know by now, ASD is a broad term and kids on the spectrum can have different symptoms or respond in unique ways to the same stimuli, so what works for one kiddo may not be what works for your kiddo. Because of that, the following will be general tips. You’ll need to consider your daughter’s specific needs and work with her care team to come up with the best solutions.
Find a General or Pediatric Dentist Who Already Works with Kids on the Spectrum
You don’t necessarily need to stick with a pediatric dentist, but you do need to find someone who already works with those diagnosed with ASD—more specifically, kids who are similar to your daughter. Make note of specific behaviors your daughter exhibits—is she sensitive to sounds? Lights? Touch? Changes in routine? How does she behave when she experiences these situations?
Find out how the dentist will handle each situation and make sure the team is prepared prior to bringing your daughter in. You can also request a consultation with just you prior to your daughter’s first appointment, a visual “no touch” appointment, or a tour beforehand. While not all dentists offer these options, they can be incredibly helpful for kids with ASD.
Prepare Your Daughter for the Visit
When you’ve selected a dentist, get a complete walkthrough of what the visit will entail from the moment you walk through the doors. Because many kids on the spectrum struggle with new places and situations, you’ll want to familiarize her with the process and expected behaviors as much as possible beforehand. Some families find it helpful to create a storyboard or book together, while other families like to create a checklist of activities.
Bring your daughter’s favorite tools with her. If lights bother her, bring a pair of sunglasses along. If noise creates issues, bring along some music and headphones or noise-reduction headphones. Touch may always be a sensitive spot, but you may be able to prepare her for the visit better by acting out events ahead of time. For example, you can roleplay and count each other’s teeth using a toothbrush or mouth mirror from the dental aisle or practice what sitting still in the dental chair will be like.
Be Open to the Idea of Sedation
At the end of the day, your daughter will need to have her teeth professionally checked and cared for. If visits end in chaos or are creating undue stress for her, sedation may be the only route to proper care and can help her maintain a more positive attitude about dental visits in the long run. It’s not right for every child, but if visits are still difficult despite everyone giving it their best, it’s something worth talking to your dentist about. Best of luck to you and yours.