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Autism and the Dentist: Anxiety-Reducing Tips for Parents and Children

Dan Hall is the founder of DadsChange.com, a community of dads who want to show their support for fathers everywhere. He hopes the information and support provided by Dads Change helps community members on the hard days and serves as a reminder about why being a father is the gift of a lifetime.  

As a parent, you would do anything to help ease your child’s anxiety. However, when your child lives with autism spectrum disorder, it’s not always easy to prevent this reaction to things that may otherwise be considered an everyday occurrence. 

Trips to the dentist can be stressful for children with and without autism. Many kids pick up a fear of dentists from their parents or pop culture. Or, they maybe had a bad first experience and haven’t gotten to a place where they can overcome it just yet. If a child has autism, going to the dentist may push their boundaries in relation to their sensory processing issues. Figuring out the reasons behind a child’s fears can help you figure out the best ways to address anxiety and support them when it’s time to go to the dentist. 

 

Watch Your Words

Children are always listening — even when you’re not putting much thought into the words you’re saying. Whenever the topic of the dentist comes up, be aware of your tone and the words you use around your child. Try to make the trip sound fun and positive rather than scary and alarming. Simplifying your explanations can help, as well. According to pediatric dentist Michael J. Hanna, DMD, having parents tell their children that they are simply “going to check their smile and count their teeth” puts kids at ease during the cleaning process. 

 

Talk to Your Pediatrician 

If your child’s anxiety makes them physically unwell, bring it up with their pediatrician. Physical symptoms of anxiety include shaking, jitteriness, shortness of breath, clammy hands, dry mouth, irregular heartbeat, stomachaches, and hot flashes. Your pediatrician may recommend treatment such as cognitive behavioral therapy, but if your child has autism, they may need additional help in the form of medication or an other-the-counter remedy. 

 

Consider Switching Dentists 

Autism advocate and author Lisa Jo Rudy points out that “not all dentists are comfortable with kids on the autism spectrum.” While a pediatric dentist is more likely to be a good choice, they still may not have the kind of experience working with ASD children and responding to their particular boundaries and needs. However, they will not likely come right out and tell you that they aren’t experienced, so it’s your responsibility to put in the leg work and research to find the best professional in your area. Once you’ve found a good candidate or two, schedule a meet-and-greet so your child can be introduced and grow familiar with the dentists in a warm and friendly capacity. A good first impression can go a long way with children. 

 

Enlist a Friend

Sometimes, your kid just needs someone on his side when walking into a scary situation. Let your child bring a stuffed animal or beloved toy with them to the dentist so they have someone to hold onto when they have to lay back in that chair. Set them up for success by letting them know that their toy understands what they are feeling and will be there every step of the way. 

Helping your child with autism spectrum disorder face their fears often means soothing their anxieties as best you can. Be aware of your words and tone when talking about the dentist — your negativity will only make them worry more. Talk to your pediatrician about your options when it comes to handling anxiety, be it cognitive behavioral therapy or some kind of medicinal treatment. Consider if it’s not all dentists, but your child’s particular dentist that is the problem. You may want to find a dentist who has plenty of experience addressing the particular needs of children with autism. Finally, give your child their own lucky charm by letting them bring a beloved toy they can hold onto when they feel scared. 

Written by: Dan Hall