Home > Science > A Trip to the Dentist Can Be a Positive Experience

A Trip to the Dentist Can Be a Positive Experience

Posted by Elizabeth Shick, DDS, MPH, assistant professor at Children’s Hospital Colorado and the University of Colorado School of Dental Medicine, one of 17 Autism Speaks Autism Treatment Network (ATN) sites across North America.

 As a dentist, I can only hope that when I say “open wide,” that’s exactly what the person sitting in my dental chair does. When I see children in my practice, I know I won’t get my wish every time. Many children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) have difficulty following directions during routine dental cleanings. Nonetheless, I love working with these kids and their families. So I’ve adapted my practice so that everyone involved with these wonderful patients gets the most out of each visit.

A few years ago, for example, I had a visit I will never forget. The family had not one but two sons with autism. My receptionist greeted the family and after consulting with the parents, we decided it would be best for me to see the six year old first, and then see his eight-year-old brother. He came into my small examination room with his mom and immediately began pacing and staring at the floor as if looking for something he had lost. I asked him to sit in the chair. He didn’t respond or look up. It was clear that the bag of tricks I learned in dental school wasn’t going to get him to cooperate.

To coax him into my examination chair, I asked his mom to hold his hand and help steer him into the chair. She continued to hold his hand during the entire visit. I made sure not to rush through with my typical routine. Instead, I showed him the mirror and toothbrush I was going to use and explained to him, each step of the way, what I was going to do next.

After a while, he began to make eye contact with me. He even smiled. He didn’t do everything I asked, and he struggled through certain parts of the appointment, sometimes trying to sit up or jump off the chair. But we got done what we needed to—a dental cleaning, a thorough dental exam, and a fluoride application. Then his dad came in with his older brother, and we did it all again.

During dental school, few students practice treating patients with ASD. For this reason, many dentists may feel uncomfortable when caring for patients with autism, and it can be difficult for families to find a dentist who understands their child’s needs.

I have been fortunate to work with some wonderful autism specialists here at Children’s Hospital Colorado. With support from Autism Speaks’ Autism Treatment Network (ATN), we created Treating Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders: A Tool Kit for Dental Professionals. It is designed to help dental professionals like myself understand autism and work with parents to help make office visits successful. I often use the recommendations in the tool kit in my own practice.

With autism on the rise, it’s becoming more and more important that dental providers—including dental hygienists, dental assistants and even front desk staff—have the most current information about autism and know how to interact with families affected by it. It is our sincere wish that more dentists will be empowered by our tool kit to welcome these children into their practice and help make their visits a positive experience. We hope you will share the new Dentist Tool Kit with your dental care providers. You can download for free, here. Also see Autism Speaks Dental Tool Kit for families, here.

  1. Mark
    February 21, 2012 at 2:44 pm

    We had 2 bad experiences with our dentist and we shall be trying a new one we found. Our son will be 4 years old next month.

  2. February 21, 2012 at 3:05 pm

    We have had an amazing experience with our dentist. We did mini visits leading up to the actual day. Noah was able to say hi, play video games and watch the fish and get a prize each day before. This allowed him to be comfortable and recognize everyone. After the 3rd time he now sits in the chair by himself and lets the dental hygienist work on him.

    Curtis Maybin

    AutismNewsWire spreading global autism awareness

  3. Anna
    February 21, 2012 at 4:07 pm

    We have been to several dentists with our son, with no success. We have had to put him to sleep in order to get dental work done because we can’t get him to stay in the chair for regular cleanings. Going to the dentist is a major issue, he usually screams, won’t lay back and gets upset when going to the chair. Even the people who work in the office and the techs look at my son funny. Why can’t there be a place, a dental practice geared toward treating and understanding kids with autism and who are very sensory defensive. For us it is always a nightmare.

    • AzJenn
      February 21, 2012 at 6:41 pm

      Yep, my poor little guy was so freaked out he once got a terrible nosebleed just waiting in the reception area. we spent the whole visit just dealing w/ the nosebleed. Now he is fully sedated once a year & they do everything at that visit; x-rays,cleaning & any treatments. I will say all the staff are very understanding and supportive-always book him the first am appointment so no other people are there until he is in the private room & under sedation

    • Heather
      February 25, 2012 at 1:01 am

      With the light, and the drill, the dentist is a difficult place for anyone with sensory issues. Sometimes sleep dentistry is the best way for some people.

  4. February 21, 2012 at 4:10 pm

    Remember children are NOT the only individuals with ASD. Dentists and others should develop better skills at interacting with young adults as well.

  5. February 21, 2012 at 4:12 pm

    Our child’s dentist is great! We do lots of prompting before hand. If anything other than the general preventative treatments are are needed (cavities, and yes, even extractions), we do those on a separate visit so that we are able to mentally prepare him. The dentist is quick and uses nitrous oxide, which helps to relax him. When I was researching him as a replacement dentist, the first question I asked was how does he and the rest of the staff deal with children that have ASD. I have recommended him to other parents that have children with ASD, and they have also been very pleased.

  6. sherry foster
    February 21, 2012 at 4:53 pm

    I Live in Michigan and My son to this day cant get into a dentist the dentist would have us sit in the waiting room and after we would go into the room the dentist assistant would say he cant see your son because he dont deal with kids like him…I told her we sat in this office for an hour and a half and u couldnt tell me when i signed in??? It’s just to hard to find one for my son. The school takes them once a year and he does good for them and they send his papers home with dentist through out Michigan and Not a one will take him. I tried Everything and Nothing I don’t know what else to do. Childrens sedates him but now it costs 65.00 and with me being on medicade no help at all he is now 14 and we have been dealing with this since he was 5.

  7. CJ
    February 21, 2012 at 6:14 pm

    Our Dentist and hygenists are great with my 6 yr old granddaughter. She still refuses to let them do x-rays. She doesn’t have any experience with them, so she refuses. Any ideas?

  8. Annmarie Mena
    February 21, 2012 at 7:01 pm

    I live Texas and it was so hard finding a dentist that deals with children with special needs. I finanlly found one and I have to say it still hard for my son to learn the rountine. But at least the Dr. and staff are very understanding, even though I apologize. To everyone out there please keep the faith and do research, ask questions, and never give up on hope. Our children need us, and without us who do they have.

  9. February 22, 2012 at 7:17 am

    Hi everyone,
    Many of our Autism Treatment Network clinics have affiliated dentists. You can find ATN centers near you here:


  10. February 22, 2012 at 7:19 am

    And please bring your questions to our upcoming webchat, Thursday March 1 at 3 pm ET. Our guest hosts will include dentist Jose Polido, who works with our ATN center at Children’s Hospital-Los Angeles.

  11. February 22, 2012 at 4:23 pm

    mentally challenged kids have difficulties of following simple routine. Dentist will have to adjust and be patient on handling them

  12. Heather
    February 25, 2012 at 12:57 am

    I am a dental assistant with a child on the ASD spectrum. Sometimes it’s not a dentist that speciailzes in special needs kids that you need, it’s just a dds with some experience working with people that have austim. Kindness and education go a long way, I try to help the people in the office that I work in understand what is needed. I would call an office and ask if the dentist and staff have any experience working with people with autism.

    • Mark
      February 25, 2012 at 2:45 pm

      We live in Franklin Ma. and the place we went to said they were dealt with little children of such not true the lady was a jerk no other way to put it. She informed my wife to just hold him down while she looks at his teeth and cleans them.

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