Small Changes Can Make a Big Difference for Autistic Children During Dental Visits

Richard Gawel

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Inspired by her own experience as the mother of a 5-year-old son with autism, a dental hygienist and PhD student has published new research hoping to make dental examinations less stressful for autistic children. For example, giving children the power of choice even in something as simple as the color of mouthwash they use after a dental exam could make such visits easier for these young patients, according to Nicole Thomas of the Plymouth University Peninsula Schools of Medicine and Dentistry.

Thomas interviewed 17 parents about their experiences of taking their children for routine dental examinations. She worked with researchers at the Peninsula Cerebra Research Unit (PenCRU) at the University of Exeter Medical School and was advised by members of the PenCRU Family Faculty, a group of parents of disabled children. The research uncovered five areas that improved the chances of a successful dental visit, with clear communication between parents and professionals central to ensuring a positive experience. 

“Going to the dentist can be challenging for any child, but I know from experience that taking a child with autism for a routine checkup can be really stressful for everyone involved, from the huge amount of preparation prior to and the impact afterwards if it is unsuccessful,” said Thomas. “So I, with the outstanding support of my mentor Sharon Blake from the University of Exeter was surprised at the small changes required that could make a really significant difference.” 

All of the parents said their children were hypersensitive to the feelings and negative body language of those around them, which made dental exams challenging. Flexibility in making minor environmental adjustments and giving children choices such as mouthwash colors or light brightness was effective in helping them feel less stress. The behavior of the entire dental team, from the receptionists to the clinicians, also was influential. And, the parents’ confidence when visiting the dentist was a key factor.

“Some parents respect the dentist’s viewpoint so much that they don’t have the confidence to ask about what to expect and request changes to surroundings, but this study shows that clear and open communication on both sides creates a collaborative partnership that works in the best interest of all,” said Thomas.

Clear referral pathways to specialist dental services to avoid any delay and distress for families whose children still are unable to cope with conventional dental settings also is important. Thomas also hopes that the study will empower parents to feel confident to advocate for their child’s individual needs and help dental professionals such as herself understand how the small changes that they can incorporate can make a big difference.

“Our next step is to work with dental service providers and autism support groups and charities to raise awareness of the study’s findings. We hope that promoting small changes could have an impact on a large number of people,” said Thomas.

The study, “Autism and Primary Care Dentistry: Parents’ Experiences of Taking Children With Autism or Working Diagnosis of Autism for Dental Examinations,” was published by the International Journal of Pediatric Dentistry.

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