A Guide for Visiting the Dentist With Your Autistic Child

Visits to the Dentist can be very stressful when you have a child with autism. And not just for the child! Parents feel the stress as well. They know how their kid is most likely going to react and then add in other unknowns like a new place, hygienists and dentists touching their kiddo, inability to follow directions, other people at the dentist office, screaming, kicking, sensory processing disorder, anxiety…eek. It’s a lot to prepare for and think about.

I brought my autistic son to his first dentist appointment last month. Here are my 11 tips to help you have a successful trip to the dentist.

  1. Find a Dentist who Understands Autism
    Not every Dentist works with children with autism. That is important to remember. Working with a child who has autism requires training and experience. I highly recommend reaching out to parents that have kiddos on the spectrum. Ask them where they go. Another great place to ask are local autism Facebook groups. Parents on those are a huge resource. Use them.
  2. Call the Dentist and Ask Questions
    When I make any appointment for Cooper I always ask to speak with someone other than the receptionist. In the case of the dentist you want to understand what an appointment looks like. Ask them point blank if they work with kids with autism. If they say yes, realistically talk about your child. Are they a kicker? A runner? Explain your concerns about the appointment. Be honest. You will know right away if they are willing to work with you.
  3. Visit the Office Before the Appointment
    My son needs repetition to be successful. Something as simple as turning the ‘wrong’ way on a drive can set him down a bad path. If you are going to a new location, drive the route with your child. We even go as far as parking the car and walking inside. I like Cooper to see the building, the parking lot, the office, the door, the waiting room, etc. In our world repetition removes anxiety. Yes, this all takes time. It’s worth it for us though.
  4. Talk about the Dentist with Your Child
    We talk about appointments for days and days before they actually happen. The second I made the dentist appointment I added a ‘dentist’ button to Cooper’s communication device and showed him where it was located and how to use it in a sentence. I also found a book and a YouTube Video of Elmo visiting the dentist for Cooper to interact with. He is a visual kid. Seeing is learning for him.
  5. Complete the Paperwork Beforehand
    I always have the necessary paperwork emailed to me before any and all appointments for Cooper. He will not sit patiently while I complete it and trying to fill it out is impossible. I need to be able to move with him. Most dentists and doctors will send the paperwork beforehand and you can complete it. Have your insurance card ready when you arrive too so you can just hand it over. Digging for stuff in your purse is a recipe for failure.
  6. Call the Day of the Appointment
    I always call and speak to the clinic before we arrive at an appointment. I explain that we are coming in and that Cooper has severe autism. I ask for the WiFi password so I can have it programmed into Cooper’s device. Nothing is more stressful than waiting for a device to connect to WiFi. I also tell them that I want a room as SOON AS IT IS available. We want to sit in the lobby for the shortest time possible. Lobbies cause Cooper anxiety. They are loud and crowded. Also, if you want a private room at the dentist now is the time to ask. Many dentist chairs are in open spaces. Ask if you can have a private room.
  7. Dress for the Appointment
    This one is totally for the mom or dad although I do recommend dressing your kiddo in clothes that are not important. The dentist can be messy. When I visit public places with my son I always dress like I’m ready for a marathon. I know my son is a runner and quite wiggly. I always wear my tennis shoes. I leave my jacket and purse in the car. I use a backpack so my hands are free. I know that I will be chasing Cooper and need to maneuver. High heels and a purse slow me down. I need to be able to throw my kiddo over my shoulder when needed.
  8. Rewards
    Typically, the only rewards and motivators that matter to my son are treats. Think Cheetos and Starbursts. Well, these won’t work at the dentist. Nor will the stickers or trinkets that the dentist office offers. My kid is not motivated by these things. In our world I have to get creative. My son LOVES my iPhone and never gets to use it. This is a HUGE motivator for Cooper so I only offer it up in the most important of moments. What works for you?
  9. Speak Up When Something Isn’t Working
    This is huge and really important. The hygienist has a very important job to do. We all get that. BUT, you have a vulnerable kid with special needs. Stuff like this works better when parents and professionals work together. That might mean you climb in the chair with your kid. Or, they don’t wear the eye protection. Speak up. At our last appointment I noticed that the hygienist wanted to try and do a quick teeth brushing procedure in the hall at an open sink. I knew that wouldn’t work. She was so thankful when I spoke up and told her. Also, ask only for the necessary procedures. And that they go fast. Or, does your child need everything explained slowly and to be given time to process? Or is it better just to fly through it. Speak up.
  10. Bring Someone With You
    Can you bring someone with you to help? I always find it so helpful when I have a person with me to communicate while I am chasing Cooper. They can sign forms or wait in the lobby while you walk the halls with your child before the appointment. They are your communicator and an extra pair of hands when you need it.
  11. Finish the Conversation Over the Phone or by Email
    My son is very loud and very busy and when he is DONE the appointment is DONE. This often makes it very hard to communicate with medical professionals. I highly recommend asking if you can finish up the appointment over the phone. Then, you can ask questions and communicate without interruption.

Lastly, good luck! I was so unbelievably nervous about taking my son with autism to the dentist. Like I said earlier, we avoided it until he was six years old. The stress of all of it, finding a dentist, explaining autism, Cooper sitting, Cooper kicking and biting, and ultimately failing, scared me so badly. I followed all of the tips above and we ended up having a successful trip. The whole teeth cleaning took seven minutes. Yes, Cooper screamed the whole entire time. Yes, he had to sit on my lap and dad had to stand over him. We did it though. We made it. A huge thank you to Metropediatric Dental in Saint Paul, MN. They were fantastic to work with!

And remember, if you fail, you just try again. Don’t give up.

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