Date Revised: June 28, 2023
What can families do to get a child with autism ready for a dental appointment? How can you find a dentist who is a good fit for someone whose traits or behaviors might complicate a standard exam?
Parents in the SPARK autism study, along with dentists, provided the following tips.
1. Find a dentist who has experience treating people who have developmental conditions.
Ask for recommendations from your doctor, autism organizations and agencies, the local Special Olympics, and friends. A nearby dental school is a useful resource. The school may have a clinic that treats people with developmental conditions, or know of local dentists who do.
Many people on the spectrum are very sensitive to sounds, sights, smells, tastes, and touch. “Therapists, like occupational and speech and language, could recommend dentists who are sensory-friendly,” says SPARK participant Jorge Rivera, father of a 9-year-old son with autism. “The second step is verifying that the office environment has a friendly and empathic staff, and a sensory-friendly place that’s quiet with good lighting.”
Another SPARK participant found her son’s dentist online. “We used Yelp to find an autism-friendly dentist in our area. I read reviews and saw pictures of the dental office (lots of colorful, child-friendly activities) and screens on each dental chair to allow the kids to choose what they want to watch as they get their teeth cleaned,” says Karen Zarsadiaz-Ige, mother of a 9-year-old son on the spectrum.
2. Let the dental office know what your child needs.
Ask about any accommodations ─ such as a quiet room and dimmer lighting ─ that your child needs. “Feel empowered to ask for what you need and keep looking until you find a dentist who will meet those needs, because they are out there,” says SPARK parent Karah Manning, whose 9-year-old daughter has autism.
3. Read a social story about going to the dentist with your child.
Developed by teacher Carol Gray, social stories describe a new situation for someone with autism. They often use simple, direct language to describe a sequence of events that the person will experience. They usually have photos or pictures to help illustrate the things the person will see, hear, and do.
You can see examples of social stories about going to the dentist and dental procedures on the website of the Pennsylvania Autism Services, Education, Resources, and Training Collaborative. You can download those stories or create your own using pictures of your child and dental office.
4. Check out children’s books and videos about seeing a dentist.
“We prepare both our neurodivergent child and neurotypical child for their dental appointments by watching videos (Daniel Tiger, Peppa Pig) and reading books about it,” Zarsadiaz-Ige says.
5. Get a foot in the door, before the first appointment.
Ask the dental office if your child can tour the office before the appointment, or if they have photos of the office that your child can see, according to a guide published by the Southwest Autism Research & Resource Center.
6. Role play a dental visit at home.
You can put on a pair of disposable gloves and practice looking in the child’s mouth and counting their teeth.
Another way to play dentist is to use toys. “We have a toy mouth that we use to pretend we’re dentists looking for cavities and cleaning teeth,” Zarsadiaz-Ige says.
7. Let your child know ahead of time about the appointment.
Many children on the spectrum like to know about changes in their daily routines. Zarsadiaz-Ige shows her son his dentist appointment on the calendar.
8. Ask your dentist about dental sealants and fluoride to prevent cavities.
People may be at higher risk of tooth decay if they take medications that cause dry mouth, have trouble with daily brushing, and cannot tolerate a standard cleaning in the dental office every six months.
A sealant is a thin coating a dentist can apply to the surfaces of molars to prevent cavities. A dentist can also apply fluoride directly to teeth to help prevent decay.
In a 2023 webinar for the National Council on Severe Autism, Allen Wong, D.D.S, said that regular fluoride varnishes can help people at high risk for cavities. Wong is a professor who specializes in special needs dentistry at University of the Pacific.
9. Do something fun after the visit.
Do something your child enjoys after the dental appointment. “Sometimes our parents and caregivers like to take our patients for ice cream or their favorite meal afterwards, because then they have something to look forward to at the end of the visit. It gives them the positive reinforcement of associating the visit with something happy,” says Samantha J. Yineman, D.M.D, M.P.H, assistant director of the Special Care Clinic, Arizona School of Dentistry and Oral Health at A.T. Still University.
10. Be positive when talking about seeing a dentist.
Avoid telling your child about a bad experience that you had with a filling or root canal. “Try not to create any negative, preconceived notions about their visit,” Yineman says.
Instead, try to make the appointment seem fun and exciting. The outcome ─ a clean and healthy mouth ─ certainly will be.
- Read The Challenges and Barriers to Dental Care When You Have Autism.
- View the SPARK webinar Autism in Dentistry -The Spectrum of an Over-Sensory Environment.
Interested in joining SPARK? Here’s what you should know.