How do I make a dental visit successful?

Answer: Most people don’t like going to the dentist. For child with autism, the sounds, smells and sensations of a dental appointment can send them over the edge. Here are some ways to make a dental appointment a success.

The first step and most important is to take away the unpredictability of the dental visit. There are two ways to achieve this – by creating a social story and letting the child see the dentist’s office before the actual appointment. The social story walks the child through the dental visit step by step. Start with a photo of the outside of the building. This can be the title page –“ (Name) Visits the Dentist”. Photograph the elevator or stairs, then the door to the office. Get pictures of the staff in the order the child will meet them: receptionist, dental hygienist, and dentist. Snap pictures of the waiting area and some toys that might amuse entice the child. Unsure of the breakdown of a dental appointment? Click here to see photos of a dental appointment. There is also an app available for dental visits.

There are a few fun moments at the dentist so play those up. Show what the dentist’s chair looks like and the light above it. Do children get a toy at the end of the appointment? If so, get a picture of some of the choices. At the end of the social story, have a picture of some type of reward for the dental visit.

Make sure your first time to the office is simply an exploratory one. Let the child play in the waiting room and get used to the area. Pre-arrange a visit so a receptionist can give mini tour. Let the child sit in the dentist’s chair and tell him/her the dentist will simply count his/her teeth at the first appointment. Practice what that feels like. Walk through the basic steps of a visit – checking in with the receptionist, waiting, and then being called to sit in the chair.

One way to prepare at home for a dental visit is through tooth brushing. Start with a washcloth on your finger and run it around the surface of the child’s teeth. This helps the child get used to having the wiping sensation on teeth as well as someone else’s finger in their mouth. Move on to a toddler toothbrush with no toothpaste on it. Count to five or ten while moving the brush around so that the child knows there will be an end to this sensation. Next add mild tasting toothpaste. Most children’s brands taste quite good. Have the child move the brush around his mouth by himself while counting to five or ten.

If the child is resistant to tooth brushing and this can go in phases, use picture symbol for tooth brushing or a visual support breakdown of the steps in tooth brushing. Because children with autism are visual, showing what you want them to do rather then telling them is often more effective in getting the response you want.

Shop around for a dentist. Try to find a pediatric dentist or one that has experience working with children. Phone the office first and explain the situation to see if they can accommodate your wishes for a pre-visit and perhaps several visits to see the dentist before an actual exam takes place. Ask other moms who have an autistic child what dentist they see.

It is recommended that a child have their first dental visit around the age of one year. This is a very different type of appointment from what a child will experience at the age of 2 or 3. Our dental visit problems with both of our children started at the age of 2 to 3 when exams a more invasive.

A positive first experience will lessen the chances of a stressful visit in the future. Remember, with autistic children preparation and predictability are the keys to success. Happy brushing!

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