Teaching children to brush their teeth and managing a trip to the dentist can be a bit challenging, especially when your child has autism.
Some autistic children are hypersensitive, like my son. They feel things differently than a typically developing child. There's no escaping this. So if you're a parent of a child with autism just embrace this fact and work with it or around it.
When i'm trying to get my son to brush his teeth I have to always remember how overwhelming it is for him and the need to be patient. The sensory overload from the taste and smell of toothpaste, and the texture of the toothbrush is probably a bit too much for him. Worse when he has to go to the dentist. The strange smells, the loud noises, the sharp looking tools and that strange masked person hovering over him with those sharp looking tools. When you really think about the whole thing, you have to acknowledge how scary the process must seem to children, even more so for those on the spectrum. They don't know what's going to happen or how long it will take and all of this contributes to making the experience difficult for you and your child...but especially your child.
My son no longer has an issue with brushing his teeth and will brush his teeth when told to do so. He will also allow me to assist when his teeth need a bit more attention.
Going to the dentist however is a completely different story. With never-ending negotiations and me exercising the patience of Job and then at the end of the session only accomplishing him saying hi to the dentist and going up and down in the chair. It used to be extremely frustrating, but not anymore!
My son's last visit was a success. While he did not allow the hygienist to use the ultrasonic tool that removes tarter, he actually gave her the green light to use the mirror, count his teeth, use her polishing tool on a few of his teeth and use gauze to clean the rest of his teeth. I call this a HUGE win. Of course there were negotiations, isn't there always?? Sonic the Hedgehog (his favourite toy) had to be present and I had to promise he'd get my phone right after to play with, but at the end of the session we were all happy to note the amazing progress he made.
So what did we do? How did we make such progress? BLOOD, SWEAT AND TEARS! Ha ha, I'm just kidding, there was no blood. There were a few tears though, and lots of sweat!
With guidance from therapists and tips online we made a plan and stuck with it.
Here are a few tips and guidelines we found helpful:
- Introduce/encourage teeth brushing from early;
- Make sure to start with a soft bristle toothbrush;
- Use visual supports or schedules, for example take photographs of the tooth brushing steps, print the photos and then laminate them in a table format. You can then use a dry erase marker to check off each step;
- Establish a routine - for example, 1/2 hour before bedtime, dress for bed, brush teeth, read a book then it is bed time;
- Sing a song every time your child has to brush his teeth. We always started with this song: "Brush your teeth, brush your teeth make them clean. Brush your teeth brush your teeth make them clean. Brush your teeth, brush your teeth, brush your teeth, brush your teeth, brush your teeth brush your teeth, make them clean." (Sang to the tune of that sunday school song "Oh be careful little eyes what you see".);
- Use visual timers. There are tons of apps online to help with this. We also invested in the Philips Sonic Care Toothbrush for children - it has a really cool sparkly kids toothbrush app which helped turn brushing time into fun time!;
- Try to take turns brushing teeth. Allow your child to brush your teeth and then you brush his teeth etc
- Try Hand over hand brushing. It works especially in the beginning stages.
- Choose a dentist who has some experience with children with autism. Ask around for recommendations. Bonus if they have a fantastic hygienist working with them.
- Plan ahead, talk to your child's therapist ask them for assistance as they can help with establishing a step-by-step plan or a social story with rewards.
- Leading up to the visit you, your child and the therapist should go through the steps i.e. check in, wait in waiting room for name to be called, meet the hygienist and dentist, sit in the chair etc etc
- Reinforce or reward for EVERYTHING, even if your child was only able to say hi to the dentist -the point is to make going to the dentist FUN!
There are many more tips and guidelines online to help parents and caregivers encourage teeth brushing and successfully manage a trip to the dentist. My suggestions above are only that...suggestions. They worked for my child but may not work for yours. Remember each child is different, so do your research and try everything until you find the right formula for you and your child.
It may take a couple of visits to get to the point of the dentist counting teeth, even longer for an actual cleaning, but it will come. So, DON'T GIVE UP and always always always remember to be patient.