Navigating Dental Visits for Children with Autism: Challenges and Best Practices

By raluca.olariu@…, 9 May, 2023
blue and white toothbrush


Taking children to the dentist can be a daunting experience for any parent, but when it comes to children with autism, it can present unique challenges. The sensory sensitivities, communication difficulties, and unfamiliar environment can make dental visits overwhelming for children on the autism spectrum.

However, it is crucial to address these challenges, as neglecting dental care can lead to severe consequences.

In this article, we will explore the difficulties faced by children with autism when visiting the dentist and outline the potential consequences of avoiding dental visits. This article also outlines tips for preparing children with autism for dental visits.

Challenges Faced by Children with Autism at the Dentist

Many children despise going to the dentist, but for children with autism, the challenges are not a few. The most common are:

  • Sensory Overload: Dental clinics are often filled with bright lights, loud noises, unfamiliar smells, and unusual textures. Children with autism may experience sensory sensitivities that can trigger anxiety, leading to challenging behaviors and difficulty cooperating during dental examinations.
  • Communication Barriers: Many children with autism struggle with verbal and non-verbal communication. They may find it difficult to express their needs, fears, or discomfort, making it challenging for the dental team to provide appropriate care and for parents to understand their child's experiences.
  • Rigid Routines and Predictability: Children with autism often thrive on structure and predictability. The unfamiliarity of the dental environment and the deviation from their regular routines can be distressing for them, leading to heightened anxiety and resistance to dental procedures.
  • Sensory-Based Oral Defensiveness: Children with autism may have aversions to certain textures or sensations in their mouth, making it difficult for the dentist to conduct oral examinations or perform necessary treatments.

Consequences of Avoiding Dental Visits:

Neglecting dental care for children with autism can have serious repercussions such as:

  • Oral Health Issues: Lack of regular dental visits can lead to untreated dental caries, gum disease, and other oral health problems that may cause pain, discomfort, and potential infections.
  • Compromised Overall Health: Poor oral health can contribute to systemic health issues such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and respiratory infections, impacting the overall well-being of the child.
  • Aggravated Dental Anxiety: Avoiding dental visits due to challenges faced by children with autism can reinforce fear and anxiety associated with dental care, making future visits even more difficult.

Learn more about Preparing Your Autistic Child for a Dental Visit.

Tips and Best Practices for Preparing Children with Autism for Dental Visits

To make dental visits easier for autistic kids, parents and caregivers can follow these best practices:

  • Establish a Dental Routine: Introduce a structured dental routine at home, including brushing and flossing, to familiarize your child with oral care practices and make dental visits less disruptive.

Discover Tips for Helping Children with Autism Brush Their Teeth.

  • Visual Supports and Social Stories: Use visual aids, such as social stories or visual schedules, to explain what happens during a dental visit. Include pictures of the dental office, equipment, and the step-by-step process to help your child understand what to expect.
  • Desensitization Strategies: Gradually expose your child to dental-related stimuli by role-playing at home or visiting the dental office beforehand. Practice sitting in the dental chair, wearing a bib, and having their teeth examined with a toothbrush.
  • Communication Strategies: Collaborate with the dental team to establish effective communication methods for your child, such as using visual aids, gestures, or a communication app. Share any specific sensory sensitivities or accommodations that may help create a more comfortable experience.
  • Accommodations for Sensory Sensitivities: Request accommodations to minimize sensory overload, such as dimming lights, reducing noise, providing sunglasses or noise-canceling headphones, and allowing your child to bring comforting items from home.
  • Reinforcement and Positive Reinforcement: Use positive reinforcement techniques, such as verbal praise, small rewards, or short breaks to keep your child motivated during the procedure.

Navigating dental visits for children with autism can be challenging, but there are strategies that families and dental teams can use to ensure a safe and successful experience. 

Photo credit: Unsplash.