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Credit: Jane Sandwood, freelance writer

Around half of all parents with a child on the spectrum describe their child’s oral health as fair or poor, according to a study published by Pediatric Dentistry. As noted by the American Speech-Language Hearing Association, the findings are no surprise, considering that a dentist’s office can overload the senses with a plethora of noises, sharp tools and new smells that can make the experience challenging for children with autism. But factors that contribute to dental care extend beyond a visit to the dentist, as well. Good oral care begins with diet, though some children tend to have marked preferences on a narrower list of foods. It’s up to parents to make sure that dental care, especially for children with autism, is a priority that’s not a challenge but easy to remember to do.

Habits for Parents to Begin at Home
Studies show that out of all the healthcare needs in America, oral health care is the one that’s most often unmet among children with or without special needs. Prevention is the key to keeping health issues later in life at bay (like heart disease), so it is important for parents to teach good dental care early. Doing so will also avoid dental pain caused by decay and reduce the need for lengthy procedures, such as complicated fillings or root canal treatments. Try to establish a routine after meals and right before bedtime, using a variety of methods to show kids how to brush. Older children can help to ‘model’ a proper tooth cleaning routine; visual prompts can also show the angles in which a toothbrush should be held to ensure all parts of teeth are reached. Of course, diet is also key. Avoid sugary, refined foods, which increase the likelihood of cavity formation.

Test Out a Fun, Technological Aid
Children who are not overwhelmed by the sound of an electric toothbrush may benefit from dedicated sonic-style brushes that come with an app. The app, which can be downloaded onto a phone or tablet, features cartoon characters ‘leading’ your child through the brushing routine. Basically, every tooth should be brushed on the inside, outside and biting surface, and attention should be paid to the area touching the gum, since this is an area is where most plaque builds up. Apps will help kids brush patiently, keeping the brush on their teeth long enough for a thorough clean.

Positive Reinforcement Is Necessary
You many need to stand close to your child and prompt him/her when it comes to brushing. Be patient if they don’t get it right or grow impatient initially. Reinforce good attempts and reduce prompting to foster independence. Try to be flexible with respect to where your child likes to brush his/her teeth. If they do so fantastically on the sofa, it might be a great idea to get creative considering that the consequences of poor brushing can be drastic. Some parents like using the ‘first-then’ approach, using visual or verbal cues to show kids that after brushing comes an activity they love.

The Value in Picking the Right Dentist
Regular teeth cleanings and check-ups are key from toddlerhood, so choosing a sensitive, supportive, well-informed dentist is key. Consider Planned Activity Training (PAT) with a behavioral psychologist if your child is very sensitive about opening their mouth, letting others inspect their teeth, etc. PAT is centered on establishing a step-by-step plan to build a positive routine. You might want to try practicing these steps at home or with the help of a dentist. You might start out just entering the dentist’s office and saying hello to the staff, receiving a sticker or star from them. Visual supports can also be used to show the different stages of a dental visit. Some dentists offer headphones to patients, who can select music, TV shows and other types of entertainment to ‘step out’ mentally from a stressful dental visit. Some parents opt to have a dental check-up themselves and let their children watch them.

Autism Awareness in Dentists
A dentist that supports patients with autism will have specific protocols for visits. For instance, they will try to minimize waiting time and communicate very well with patients. They will explain what they are about to do and give the child all the time he/she needs to process the information. They will respect any sounds or repetitive movements that result from nerves or anxiety and will always allow the parent or caregiver to take the lead.

Optimal dental care from childhood is important, especially so children can avoid serious conditions associated with poor oral health in their adulthood. Starting early with a good routine is important for children with autism. Patiently use aids, such as visual prompts, role plays and the like, to help children understand how to clean teeth. Finally, select a recommended dentist who adapts as much as necessary to your child’s needs.