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Autism Dental Care- A Guide for Adults with Autism

Part of autism dental care is visiting the dentist. This can be a daunting experience for anyone, but for those with autism, a trip to the dentist can be incredibly overwhelming.

Although adults with autism have likely been exposed to dental offices several times in their lives, this does not make the experience any less stressful. Steps need to be taken regularly to reduce ongoing anxiety, helping individuals develop coping skills that allow for greater independence. 

This is something we focus on at the Adult Autism Center, providing programs that help each individual grow and become the best version of themselves.

Learn more about our Medical, Dental, and Hair Salon Program.

How Does Autism Affect Oral Health?

Having autism does not mean that your teeth will be different. However, research shows that oral health issues are more common because of unusual oral health habits, poor food choices, and medications that affect gum health. This can lead to an increased risk of cavities in permanent teeth. A 2018 study found that children with autism spectrum disorder were more prone to cavities and tooth decay — both of which were untreated. This means that these children’s dental needs were not being met. Researchers concluded that greater awareness of autism dental care is needed to improve the oral health of children and adults with autism.

Communication and behavioral challenges continue to pose the greatest barriers in providing oral care. 

That is why it’s important to develop an oral health plan that includes regular dental visits for autism dental care.

Dental Care Tips for Individuals with Autism

  • Brush and floss — Creating an at-home oral care routine can help prevent issues that require overwhelming dental experiences. The key is starting as early as possible so that brushing and flossing become easier with age. As an adult, it’s important to address the barriers that prevent you from caring for your teeth. Start by finding the perfect toothbrush for you. Some prefer a toothbrush with soft or silicone bristles while others like electric toothbrushes.
  • Consume a healthy diet — Individuals with autism are unique in their diet patterns, habits, and hygiene habits. A good, balanced diet is important for healthy teeth. However, autism can lead to restricted food preferences, especially those that lead to inadequate nutrition. A diet rich in vitamins and minerals and low in sugary drinks will support optimal oral health. Learn more about cooking with autism.
  • Visiting the dentist — It is recommended that you visit the dentist 1-2 times a year. As discussed below, it’s important to find a dentist that will properly care for your unique needs. Online resources, such as the American Dental Association, can help you find dentists in your area. Reach out and discuss the services they provide to patients with autism.

Why Do I Need to Go to the Dentist?

The reasons why it’s important to go to the dentist are the same for anyone — whether or not they have autism. A healthy mouth is important for your overall health and well-being.

Regular check-ups will help you address gum disease and other preventive concerns. While working with a dental team you’re comfortable with, they will help you develop a home care program that’s right for you. By preventing a more complicated issue, you will avoid a situation that may be even more overwhelming.

Why Is Going to the Dentist Stressful for Individuals with Autism?

Whether you or your loved one are fearful of the dentist, know that you are not alone. 

Individuals with autism often find dental visits very stressful because of the following: 

  • A lack of understanding — Some individuals do not understand the importance of regular check-ups concerning healthy teeth and gums. Laying in a chair with bright lights and equipment in your mouth may not seem like a valuable experience.
  • Sensory issues — Hypersensitivity is common among individuals with autism. Not only is your mouth extremely sensitive, but the dentist’s office is full of noises, smells, and bright lights. The sensation of a cold instrument in your mouth may cause discomfort, the sound of a drill may cause you distress or the taste and texture of dental paste may be unpleasant.
  • Invasion of personal space — Again, increased sensitivity can make it challenging to be physically close to others. The dentist needs to be very close to examine your teeth which can feel like an invasion of your space.

As reported in a 2014 study, dental anxiety is often associated with previous distressing dental experiences, as well as a lack of understanding of a dentist’s intentions. Since individuals with autism showcase impairments in building flexible expectations and predictions, a trip to the dentist can be highly stressful. More than 40% of respondents reported abnormal responses to sensory stimuli, especially in relation to sound and pain.

Remember, each individual with autism is highly unique in terms of their behaviors and preferences. Keep this in mind when creating your dental preparation plan. It’s important to address your greatest concerns, discussing any barriers with the dental team before your visit.

How Do Dentists Deal with Autism?

Dental professionals are becoming more aware of those with special needs, including those with autism and understand how important autism dental care is.

Predicting how a dentist will deal with autism is as easy as predicting how an individual with autism may behave during that visit. Meaning, everyone is different, and it’s tough to generalize. 

That is why you need to find a dentist who has experience working with individuals who have been diagnosed with autism. Having this prior knowledge and understanding will be important for both parties. Some behaviors and characteristics are more challenging than others in this setting, such as poor safety awareness vs poor eye contact.

Approach a dental office that will work with you and your family. For example, some dentists will arrange a desensitization appointment to help individuals with autism become more familiar with their office and staff. That way, specific challenges can be identified and addressed. Being able to communicate with you or your loved one is very important. Some may need to use picture cards to express how they feel during treatment, whereas others may use their thumb to express their needs (“thumbs up” to say everything is good and “thumbs down” if they need a break).

The American Dental Association (ADA) Supports Individuals with Autism

The ADA continues to show support for the autism community, funding and publishing research that helps ensure better dental care. For example, in 2017, a study that could help individuals with autism was featured in The Journal of the American Dental Association. This study focused on a dental desensitization program. What they found was that when given the opportunity to practice dental skills at their own pace, most patients with autism could sit for an exam with a dental mirror.

More than 75% of the patients were able to receive a dental exam in one to two dental visits and nearly 90% were within five visits using desensitization protocols. These protocols were fairly simple. The key is practicing them in a safe, structured environment.

What’s Involved in a Visit to the Dentist?

If you are going for a check-up, a dentist will look in your mouth, examining your teeth and gums. This will involve lights and dental tools, such as a small mirror, which can be cold. During this time, you’ll need to sit still and communicate how you’re feeling.

Sometimes, treatment may be necessary. A professional cleaning may be recommended, which will involve some noisy equipment and a range of stimuli. Again, this is why it’s important to discuss your personal challenges ahead of time so that your experience can be tailored to your needs. If noises bother you, having headphones and a calming playlist can help. If you dislike the taste of mouthwash, you might be able to use plain water to rinse your mouth. Regardless of what’s involved, working one-on-one with your dentist is imperative.

The Adult Autism Center Can Help Create An Autism Dental Care Plan

The Adult Autism Center is the first of its kind, offering the type of hands-on training, therapy, and support that changes lives. Our programs focus on daily living, vocational skills, and so much more! We provide an environment that is safe, allowing you to build the skills you need to thrive.

Think you or your loved one would benefit from our autism dental care program? 

Check out all of our programs and contact us with any questions — we’re here for you!

Heather Davis graduated from Texas A&M University with her Ph.D. in Special Education and is a Board-Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA). Heather has spent 18 years of her professional career working with children diagnosed with autism and their families. In her previous role as the Clinical Director of the Carmen B. Pingree Autism Center of Learning, her focus was to provide on-going staff training to ensure the delivery of high-quality, evidence-based services to meet the individualized needs of each child diagnosed with autism. She is inspired to continue to work in this field by the progress clients demonstrate which helps to improve their quality of life. Hearing individuals speak their first words, gain independent living skills, and demonstrate skills families never thought possible are what drive her to become a better clinician and continue to work with these important members of our community. In her free time, Heather enjoys running, reading, and spending time with her twin girls and husband exploring all the wonderful landscapes of Utah.

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