A Guide to Dental Care for Children with Autism
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Table of Contents
- Children with Autism Face Increased Oral Health Risks
- Oral Health Tips
- Recommended Oral Hygiene Products
- Visiting the Dentist
- Dentists with Special Training
- Resources for Parents and Kids
Children with autism are likely to suffer many more oral health problems, including tooth decay, gum disease and dental injury, than children without autism. Many autistic kids have sensory sensitivities that make it difficult to maintain an effective oral hygiene routine. These issues may also make visits to the dentist challenging.
Parents and caregivers can do several things to make oral hygiene and dental visits easier for their autistic kids. Implementing behavioral techniques, using autism-friendly dental products, and seeking out dental professionals with specialized knowledge can all help your child with autism maintain good oral health.
Children with Autism Face Increased Oral Health Risks
Children with autism can face a handful of issues related to their oral health. Among them:
- They may have difficulty tolerating the sensory inputs involved in brushing and flossing, leading them to skip these necessary tasks.
- They may engage in behaviors that endanger the teeth and gums, such as head banging and gum picking.
- There is some evidence that children with autism also prefer to eat soft, sweet foods. These types of foods often promote tooth decay. Parents may also give children with autism candies and other sweet foods as rewards for good behavior.
Because of these challenges, these kids are at greater risk of developing many different oral health conditions, including:
- Tooth decay
- Gum disease
- Teeth grinding, especially at night (known as bruxism)
- Traumatic dental injuries
- Orthodontic problems
General Oral Health Tips
Daily oral hygiene tasks might be more difficult for children with autism, but they are essential for protecting their teeth and gums. Experts have developed some useful strategies to help children with autism maintain good oral health.
Recommended Oral Hygiene Products
Plenty of oral hygiene products on the market can help children with autism address the set of unique struggles they face. Some of these include:
- Special toothbrushes. Regular toothbrushes may too harsh for kids with autism. Choose a brush with extra soft or silicone bristles for a gentle experience.
- Non-foaming or differently flavored toothpaste. Many children with autism find unflavored and non-foaming toothpastes more tolerable than typical mint or cinnamon flavors. Others enjoy child-friendly flavors like fruit punch and bubblegum.
- Flavored floss. Many children with autism strongly object to using mint-flavored floss. Have them try out a few different flavors of floss to see if any of them are more acceptable to your child. If none of them work, a water flosser might be better suited to your child's needs.
- Timers. Children with autism often want to get brushing over with as soon as possible, so they may struggle to brush for the entire two-minute period that dentists recommend. Offer them some sort of timer to help with this: this could be a small hourglass, a kitchen timer, a stopwatch, or even a built-in timer on their toothbrush.
Visiting the Dentist
Visiting the dentist can be stressful for children with autism. Here are a few ways to make this process easier for both you and your child.
Explain What Will Happen in Advance
Go to the Same Dentist Each Time
Bring Comfort Objects
Use Reinforcement Rewards
Dentists with Special Training
Some dentists receive special training to help them better serve patients with autism. They will then advertise the certifications they received by successfully completing this training to let parents know that their practice is autism-friendly.
For instance, a dental office can become a Certified Autism Center by completing coursework from the International Board of Credentialing and Continuing Education Standards.
When a dental office holds this certification, it means that their staff have been given additional training on topics like:
- How autism affects their patients
- How to be empathetic to this population’s needs
- How to accommodate those needs with specific tools and strategies
If your child is having a very difficult time with routine dental visits, consider taking them to an office with staff who hold some sort of autism-related credentials. These professionals may be better equipped to meet your child's needs.
Resources for Parents and Kids
Many organizations have published dental health resources for parents and caregivers of children with autism. Here are some helpful selections to get you started.
- The University of Washington School of Dentistry has published a fact sheet on how to handle dental appointments, as well as how to keep your child’s teeth and gums healthy at home.
- This guide from the Canadian Dental Association offers tips on oral health care for people with developmental disabilities, including children with autism.
- This step-by-step guide from the US Department of Health and Human Services helps caregivers figure out the best way to handle daily oral hygiene tasks for people with developmental disabilities.
- This one-page guide from the Special Olympics describes how to properly brush and floss using simple instructions and helpful visual aids. It also includes instructions on how to modify these practices for people with limited dexterity, which can sometimes be useful for children with autism.
Expand Your Dental Practice by Becoming a Special Needs Dentist Through Autism Certification. (February 2020). International Board of Credentialing and Continuing Education Standards.
Oral Health Care for Persons with Autism Spectrum Disorder, Alzheimer’s Disease, or Dementia. (2021). Canadian Dental Association.
Autism spectrum disorders and oral health status: review of the literature. (March 2020). European Journal of Pediatric Dentistry.
Healthy Smiles for Autism. (2021). National Museum of Dentistry.
Dental Care Every Day: A Caregiver’s Guide. (September 2019). US Department of Health and Human Services.
Diet, Oral Hygiene Practices and Dental Health in Autistic Children in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. (March 2014). Oral Health and Dental Management.
Oral Health Fact Sheet for Medical Professionals: Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder. (2010). University of Washington School of Dentistry.
Dental Health Guidance for Parents and Caregivers of Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder. (2010). University of Washington School of Dentistry.
Guide to Brushing and Flossing. (2019). Special Olympics Special Smiles.
Autism Tool Kit for Dental Professionals. (February 2007). Autism Speaks.
Brushing Teeth for Children with Autism and Sensory Processing Disorder. (2021). The Warren Center.