Certain behaviors of children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) can affect their oral health. In particular, the lack of proper oral hygiene causes plaque and tartar to accumulate, leading to cavities and gum disease. But with the efforts of parents and dentists alike, children with autism can learn the skills it takes to eventually practice an oral health routine on their own.
What Problems Can Occur
Children with autism need to practice the same measures to prevent dental disease as other children. However, children on the autism spectrum don't always do well when it comes to accepting change.
Besides resistance to change, many children with ASD are extremely sensitive to sounds, bright lights, smells, and tastes — situations commonly present in a dental office. This can make them dread going for visits to the dentist.
Some children with autism, including those who have a high IQ, have difficulty learning and acquiring new skills. Consequently, it can take more time for them to develop good oral hygiene habits. This makes regular dental visits and preventive dentistry measures even more important.
Self-injurious behavior is another problem that sometimes occurs among children and adolescents with autism. Since your child may have difficulties expressing when he or she is feeling pain, look for signs of a dental problem like trying to pull out teeth, pounding the head against the wall, or biting his or her cheeks, tongue, or lips.
What You Can Do
When your child with autism is old enough to begin learning good dental habits, introduce the steps gradually. Allow your child to play with a toothbrush, and then moisten it with water. Show your child how to gently clean their teeth with the wet brush before moving on to the use of toothpaste.
Keep in mind that your child is learning a new routine; therefore, pictures illustrating the steps may help him or her understand what to do. Pictures give your child a visual image of oral care routines he or she needs to develop.
Pictures in sequence show your child what happens next so that he or she knows what to expect. One study found the use of pictures that show the technique of tooth brushing reduced the amount of plaque visible on the teeth of children with autism.
You should also praise your child each time he or she cooperates and successfully completes a step in his or her daily dental care. By immediately offering praise when your child cooperates, you are helping him or her make the connection between tooth brushing and flossing and the positive consequences that follow.
What Your Dentist Can Do
A family dentist often specializes in pediatric dentistry; therefore, he or she is trained in making dental visits less traumatic for children. It may help to take your child for frequent, short visits to become familiar with a previously unfamiliar environment. Getting to know the dentist prior to treatment is crucial considering children on the autism spectrum have trouble developing relationships and communicating their thoughts and needs.
Once a bond of trust develops, the dentist can begin by performing simple procedures like tooth brushing and applying fluoride treatment. If your child needs a cavity filled, the dentist can perform the procedure as quickly as possible.
Your child may be less afraid and more cooperative if the dentist shows what dental equipment and tools he or she will use. This helps prepare your child in advance about what the procedure involves.
If a dental procedure will cause pain and discomfort, the dentist may talk to you about the use of sedation or performing the procedure under general anesthesia. The American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry recommends sedation for children who do not understand dental treatment, who are anxious and afraid, or who lack the cognitive or emotional maturity to cooperate.
When looking for a dentist who provides patient and compassionate dental care, contact Dr. Thomas J. Gilbert, D.D.S., at Royal Oak Dental to schedule a consultation to discuss your and your family's individual dental needs.