Autism And Tooth Health: What A Parent Needs To Know

For children with autism spectrum disorder, trying new things or going to a strange place can be especially difficult. Even daily dental hygiene can be a struggle. However, with the right tools and preparation, you can help your child to face dental care without experiencing a meltdown. 

Start With The Basics

Establish daily tooth care habits from an early age. Children with autism respond well to routine, so in order to make brushing and flossing less of a struggle:

  • use a timer. This helps your child to see exactly how long to take. Depending on where you child is on the spectrum, you can also add in numbered directions, like "Brush the left side with 13 strokes." Soon, your child will develop a method for brushing teeth, and will usually follow it exactly.
  • respect sensory sensitivities. Some children with autism struggle with accepting certain colors, textures, and flavors. Let your child decide what color the toothbrush will be. If he or she doesn't like the smell or taste of toothpaste, try different flavors or consider making your own toothpaste at home with flavorings that your child likes. 
  • employ an occupational therapist to help your child. They will use rules and reward systems to help your child feel more motivated and excited about dental hygiene.
  • if your child is old enough, appeal to their intellect. Many autistic children respond well to logic. Explain what brushing the teeth helps to prevent. Sometimes, facts and statistics will help them to see the value in this activity.

During Dental Visits

Tooth care at home is, of course, only one piece of the puzzle. In order to get teeth professionally cleaned, you'll need to take your child to the dentist at least twice a year. Because this activity is out of the ordinary, it will be difficult for your child. Autistic children have heightened sensory perception, and many of the smells, sounds, and sights in the dental office can be particularly bothersome to them. You can help prepare him or her by:

  • interviewing several dentists. While you may trust any dentist to do the job, your child might not. Explain to your child that the dentist will be another doctor that they will see sometimes, and choose the dentist that your child seems to trust and like the best. Do everything you can to see the same dentist every time you go.
  • choosing a dentist that uses lasers instead of drills for cavities. The sound and feeling of the drill is much more invasive than the silent laser. Children with special needs will have a calmer procedure and shorter recovery time.
  • touring the facility beforehand. Even if your child is non-verbal, have the dentist explain the procedure to your child before they go in. Let the dentist show the tools and how they work. If your child will not be sedated during the procedure, make sure the dentist reiterates the previous explanation and tells the child the next step before moving forward.
  • working hard to keep the appointment short and completely positive. If your child resists or acts out, do not respond to the poor behavior. However, if he or she sits still and shows bravery, given plenty of praise. This indirect method of teaching will show your child the best way to approach the dentist.

Special Circumstances

Children with autism have unique dental needs, and not all of them are dictated by how they react to the new experience. For example, about 1/4 of autistic children grind their teeth, which can cause damage. If you notice that your child has a hard time digesting food, only eats certain foods because of sensitivities, or has trouble swallowing, let your dentist know. All of these increase the chances of your child needing more frequent and specialized dental care.