If your child has autism, you may dread the daily brushing and flossing sessions, particularly if your child doesn't like the idea of inserting items into his or her mouth or has texture issues.
Dental appointments may be especially challenging for both you and your son or daughter. In fact, visits to the dentist can be so difficult that you eventually decide to skip appointments. Because children who have autism are more likely to experience certain dental issues, delaying treatment may mean that your son or daughter will eventually require extensive dental work in the future.
What Dental Conditions Affect Children with Autism?
Your child may be more likely to suffer from:
- Cavities. Although people who have autism aren't at increased risk for developing tooth decay, poor oral hygiene is a significant factor in decay. If your child does not cooperate with brushing and flossing, it will be impossible to completely remove plaque from his or teeth. Cavities are often viewed as minor dental problems, yet if tooth decay spreads, it can destroy your child's tooth and adjoining teeth and cause bacterial infections.
- Gum Disease. Plaque eventually hardens into tartar, a brown or gray deposit that causes gum disease. Poor brushing and flossing habits increase your child's risk of developing tartar. Tartar can't be removed at home and can only be scraped away with dental instruments during a cleaning. If tartar remains on your child's teeth too long, he or she may develop gum disease. Severe gum disease can loosen teeth and damage your child's jawbone.
- Teeth Grinding. Some children who have autism develop the habit of grinding or clenching their teeth. Grinding and clenching can eventually crack teeth, damaging them and increasing the risk of tooth decay. Both habits may also increase the risk of temporomandibular joint disorder (TMJ), a painful condition that can cause jaw pain, swelling, bite problems and headaches.
- Orthodontic Issues. Tongue thrusting can interfere with the normal alignment of teeth. Alignment issues are more than just a cosmetic issue, as they can also affect your child's bite.
- Trauma. If your child has seizures or falls often, he or she may damage a tooth. Broken teeth can be painful and must be treated promptly to prevent additional damage that can lead to tooth loss.
How Can I Improve My Child's Oral Hygiene and Make Dental Visits Less Stressful?
Repetition, modeling and patience are key to convincing your child to brush and floss. In addition to demonstrating tooth brushing on yourself and on your child's favorite toys, look for online videos that show children calmly brushing their teeth. If routine is very important to your son or daughter, use drawings or photographs to illustrate every step in the brushing process, and make sure that you don't deviate from any of the steps.
The taste of toothpaste can be an issue for some children. You may need to try several flavors before you find one that your child will tolerate
When oral hygiene is a concern, limiting sugary or carbohydrate-heavy snacks can be helpful in preventing tooth decay. Eating hard vegetables like carrots or apples can help dislodge plaque from your child's mouth. If your child does eat candy occasionally, avoid sticky candies. Gummy bears, caramels and other treats stick to teeth for hours and can increase your child's cavity risk.
Look for a dentist who has experience working with children with autism and welcomes these patients. Ask the dentist how he or she will help your child become more comfortable with dental visits. Strategies may include:
- Allowing you and your child to tour the office or make a few social visits before the first appointment
- Offering you the first appointment of the day to prevent anxiety caused by long waits
- Performing dental work as quickly as possible
- Consulting you about the best way to approach your child and discussing what to do if your child becomes uncooperative
- Using the same dental staff for every visit
- Allowing you to remain with your child during appointments
- Sharing information about the benefits and drawbacks of sedation during visits
Creating a positive dental experience for your child can help ensure that he or she receives needed care and doesn't balk at the idea of future trips to the dentist. When you choose a dentist who is committed to making the experience as comfortable as possible, visits will become much more productive.
Have you given up on finding a dentist who has the patience and compassion to work with your child? We understand the needs of children with autism and want to work with you to make the experience as positive as possible. Please call us to schedule an appointment for your child.
National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research: Practical Oral Care for People with Autism
American Speech-Language-Hearing Association: Autism Awareness Month, 4/21/15
Pediatric Dentistry: Listening to Parents: A Qualitative Look at the Dental and Oral Care Experiences of Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder, 11/15