Autism & Dental Care: Guide for Patients, Parents/Caregivers, and Dentists

How Does Autism Affect Dental Treatment?

Autism creates many challenges, but most of these challenges are overcome with knowledge and flexibility. Dental care is no exception. 

If you or your child is on the autism spectrum, there are several things you can do to make dental treatments easier for everyone involved.

People with autism experience anxiety before and during dental visits. Dental anxiety is common for all people, but for someone with autism, it’s especially difficult.

Investing time and effort into making a dental visit as comfortable as possible for someone with autism makes the experience easier on everyone. It also reduces the risk of dental health problems. 

Do Children With Autism Have Dental Problems?

Yes. Children with autism face all of the same dental health risks as children without autism. 

However, because routine dental visits can be more challenging for children on the spectrum, their risk of developing dental issues is higher. 

Common dental health issues like cavities and gum disease are a concern for people with autism. 

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Most of these issues aren’t because autism causes someone to have dental problems. However, if the disorder interferes with someone’s ability to get proper dental care, problems are more likely to arise. 

Additionally, children with autism tend to struggle to keep up with at-home dental care. 

Certain dental health issues do occur at a higher rate in children with autism. These aren’t related to routine dental care. 

For example, children on the spectrum have a higher risk of:

  • Teeth grinding (bruxism)
  • Tooth anomalies related to shape, size, and number of teeth
  • Accelerated or delayed eruption of teeth
  • Developmental defects, including lines, discoloration, and pits in the teeth

Children with autism who struggle with communication might be in pain and are unable to communicate the pain to adults. This leads to the advancement of dental health issues that would have otherwise been noticed when a non-autistic child expressed discomfort.

How Do I Get My Autistic Child to the Dentist? 

No matter how challenging it might be, children with autism must undergo routine dental visits. 

Having a plan and taking steps to make the experience as comfortable as possible makes it easier for everyone involved. It also increases the likelihood that dental health issues will be identified and treated early.

One of the best ways to introduce a child with autism to the dentist is to take them with you to your appointment. This allows them to think of the dentist’s office as a friendly and welcoming place before they undergo an exam. 

Visiting a dentist who has experience working with children with autism makes it easier for both child and parent. 

Patients with autism feel overwhelmed by all of the sights, sounds, and noises in the dentist’s office. Finding a dentist who understands these fears means they are prepared to introduce these things to your child. 

How to Find the Right Special Care Dentist 

Many dentists do not have experience and/or do not feel comfortable working with children with autism. This is expected to change in the future as more dental programs begin offering instruction on how to work with patients with varying needs.

If you’re already working with a dentist you like, ask if they have experience working with patients with autism. Your current family dentist might be able to see your child, as well as everyone else in your family.

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If your current dentist cannot provide care, they might be able to refer you to a dentist who has experience with additional needs patients. Special needs dentists undergo an additional three years of training. 

If you have a special needs dentist in your area accepting new patients, he or she is the best option for providing your child with dental care.

Other ways to find the right dentist for your autistic child:

  • Ask family and friends for suggestions
  • Ask your child’s pediatrician
  • Contact autism or additional needs advocacy organizations

The important thing is to find a dentist that can accommodate your child’s additional needs. 

During the initial consultation, be open and honest about what your child needs and any concerns you might have about the appointment. 

Also, discuss the opportunity of desensitizing your child before any treatment. This is done through several short visits to the dentist until your child is comfortable with the environment. 

Tips for Making Dentist Visits Successful for Your Child

There are several things parents and dentists can do to make a dental exam visit successful for a child with autism. 

For example:

  • Choose a dentist who can treat all of the dental issues your child has in one location. Visiting different offices increases anxiety.
  • If possible, bring your child along for your routine dental visit or the routine dental visit of a sibling. This way they can become familiar with the environment without having to undergo an exam themselves.
  • Consider what makes your child comfortable in other stressful situations. Try to incorporate strategies you’ve used in other situations into the dental visit. For example, if your child is calmer when they fidget with a toy, bring that toy with you for the exam.
  • Be patient. Your child must receive appropriate dental care, but the visit doesn’t need to go perfectly. Dentists understand that exams are challenging for children with autism, so there’s no reason to feel uncomfortable or embarrassed if there are bumps in the road.
  • Consider sedation if proper dental care is impossible. Sedation dentistry is a popular option among patients of all abilities who experience extreme anxiety because of dental visits. 
  • Reducing triggers can help alleviate anxiety for a patient with autism. This may include reducing the lighting or giving a child noise-cancelling headphones. Some patients with autism request no-flavor toothpaste because of sensory issues. 

Best Oral Care Practices for Patients with Autism

There are several things parents can do at home to reduce the risk of dental issues for children with autism. 

All children should practice good at-home dental care, but it’s especially important for children with autism who might not get professional exams as often as needed.

The best oral care practices for patients with autism include:

Brushing regularly 

Your child should brush their teeth twice a day for two minutes at a time. If your child is reluctant to brush, try brushing your teeth at the same time, allow them to brush the teeth of a doll or other toy, or brush for them.

Floss regularly 

Just like adults, children should floss daily once their teeth are close enough to touch. Demonstrate flossing for your child and allow them to become familiar with the floss. If possible, floss for them and then allow them to try it. 

Flossing might be a big challenge for children, especially those with autism. Be patient. The important thing is to get them comfortable with the concept of flossing.

Establish a routine 

Children do better when they know what to expect. This is especially true for children with autism. Make sure you brush at the same time every day and create a routine that is calm and fun.

Resources

(1) “Dental Care for Children with Autism | Rush System.” www.rush.edu.

(2) “Dental Tool Kit.” Autism Speaks.

(3) “What Is Autism? | Autism Speaks.” Autism Speaks, 2021.

(4) “Children’s Oral Health.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2019.

(5) “Child Dental Health.” Medlineplus.gov.

(6) Appukuttan, Devapriya. “Strategies to Manage Patients with Dental Anxiety and Dental Phobia: Literature Review.” Clinical, Cosmetic and Investigational Dentistry, vol. 8, Mar. 2016, pp. 35–50, 10.2147/ccide.s63626.

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