Dentist trips can be difficult for any child. For an autistic child, it may be especially frightening. Here is how to help your child and give them the easiest possible experience at the dentist office.
EditBefore the Appointment
- Look for a disability-friendly dentist. Some dentist offices work specifically with people with disabilities. These offices have experience with disabled kids, and often know how to help the child stay as calm and happy as possible.
- Mainstreaming isn’t always the best option. A place for disabled kids is often better if it means that your child will be more comfortable.
- Tell the office ahead of time that your child has special needs, and what to expect. You can also tell them about your child’s special interests, so that the people there can talk to your child about those interests.
- Plan the appointment on a day that won’t be busy for your child. It’s best if your child is rested and relaxed, to minimize stress. Pick a day when not much is going on. This will reduce the chance of meltdowns, tears, and stress.
- Ideally, your child should have some free time before and after the appointment, to help them unwind.
- Try reading a social story about dentists to your child. Dentists can be scary for autistic children, so it helps if the child knows exactly what is going to happen.
- Talk openly about any fears your child might have. The mouth is a sensitive part of the body, and for some autistic children, it is especially sensitive. Your child may be very worried. Validate their feelings and reassure them. Here are some things you could say:
- “It’s okay if you’re scared. Many people don’t like the dentist.”
- “You’re allowed to be upset. It’s not fun to have people poking your mouth. I know Dr. Anastazi, and she always tries to be as gentle as she can.”
- “I understand if you don’t want to go. Dentists take good care of your teeth and make sure you stay healthy, so you need to go. But you’re allowed to not like it.”
- Plan a reward activity that the child can do after the dentist trip. Watching a movie, visiting a favorite park, or even buying a small toy can be things that help cheer up your child. Select the activity ahead of time, and make it something you know your child will like.
- Try telling your child about it, so they have something to look forward to. For example, if your child loves ribbons, say “After the dentist, we are going to the arts and crafts store, and you can pick out two ribbons to buy.” Then, when the child is scared at the dentist, they can think about the ribbons they will get soon.
- Choose a low-key activity if you think your child will be exhausted or overstimulated from the dentist trip.
- Don’t use food as a reward. Your child is supposed to avoid eating for a little while after the appointment.
- Feed your child before the appointment. Your child is not supposed to eat for around 30 minutes after the appointment, and a hungry child is a child that cries and melts down more easily.
- Make sure the child has enough time to eat and brush their teeth without being rushed.
EditGoing to the Dentist
- Tell the child to get ready for the dentist. Your child should brush their teeth, and pick out a stim toy or comfort object to bring along. Help them find something they can hold in one hand; they can bring it to the dentist chair.
- Don’t rush your child. This will further stress them out. Try getting them started early, so they can move slowly if they need to.
- Be extra patient and kind with your child. If your child is stressed, they may act differently, because they are struggling emotionally. Be gentle, and recognize that it isn’t easy for your child.
- Try doing something your child likes in the car. Bring the child’s favorite music, talk about their special interests, or start a sing-along if your child likes singing.
- Recognize that your child may need extra reassurance, or ask repetitive questions. This is due to stress.
- Talk to people at the dentist office about helping your child stay comfortable and calm. They may be able to make accommodations to help your child have a more pleasant visit.
- Reassure your child that you’ll be in the waiting room if they need you. Your child may be afraid of you leaving them.
- If your child has a lot of separation anxiety, ask if you could stay with your child the whole time. They may allow you to stay in the room while your child’s teeth are cleaned.
- Reward and praise your child afterwards. Tell them that they did a good job handling the dentist, and carry out the reward plan (such as watching a movie or buying a small toy). This will help your child feel better about how everything went.
- If your child had a very hard time (crying, screaming, et cetera), tell them that courage isn’t about lacking fear, but about facing their fear. So they truly did a good job: they went to the dentist, even though it was scary and difficult. Tell them you’re proud of them.