Why Your Special Needs Child Hates Going to the Dentist

I hate going to the dentist! Kids hate going to the dentist! So how do you take your special needs child to the dentist and still smile?

For children with special needs going to the dentist is their worst nightmare! (No offence to dentists). For Mums, taking their children to the dentist can be an exhausting traumatising event. So how do I manage taking three children with special needs to the dentist without losing it?

Why is going to the dentist so difficult for children with special needs?

1. They are afraid.
2. It is a change in routine and an unknown environment.
3. Having to wait for appointment.
4. Having to lie down.
5. Every sense is challenged: bright light, noisy equipment (drilling, brushing, electronics), plastic on seats, weird unknown person wanting to touch them, having to open their mouth, being touched, prodded and poked with strange shiny instruments.
6. Not knowing what is going to happen.
7. Possible pain.

Wow, when you see it listed like this no wonder we all hate going to the dentist. No wonder, children with special needs dread the dentist.

My Experience Taking My Child with Special Needs to the Dentist

One of the first times I took my child to the dentist I read up on all the websites about how to make it a “manageable” experience. I spoke to our therapists and we wrote the “social story”. I felt great, I had this. I sat down with my child only to have him, grab the social story, fling it across the room and say: “not another stupid social story. I hate them!” The days of social stories were over!!

Then I realised this was going to be a NIGHTMARE!!!

He started stimming, hitting his head with his hands, rocking and screaming “I won’t go to the dentist! I won’t go to the Dentist!” Great! This was NOT going well for me, and the appointment was in a few days. I had already done all the usual suggested things, booked with a specialist paediatric dentist who specialised in working with children with special needs, been to the practice, met the dentist, done the social story so what now? I knew I had to come up with a plan, or we would be in meltdown mode for days. So, I calmed my son and switched on his favourite movie at the time which was Finding Nemo.  I wanted to cry but as I sat holding him, comforting him, with the images of the sea floating in front of my eyes, a lightening bolt moment occurred.

We spend all our time working with our children to be part of our world, making them adapt, making them fit in, forcing them to cope. What if I could enable my child to go to the dentist in his world, softening the experience and making it fun.

A few days later it was dentist time, I explained we were going to the funny, crazy Nemo dentist. It was exciting!   We had to get all dressed up ready to go to the beach. We were going to pretend to be a “puffer” fish, just like in Nemo. So we put on our swimmers and beach clothes, packed our towels and swimming things. My son, thought it was hilarious. You don’t wear swimmers to the dentist!

I had phoned ahead explaining what we were doing (so the dentist didn’t think I had lost it entirely.) When we arrived they greeted us with welcome to underwater world. We went into the room, we pretended we were at the sea, we laid our towel over the chair (so there would be no weird plastic touching my son). We put in our swimming earplugs, to cut out any noises. Placed our dark goggles over our eyes to stop the bright light and my son lay on the towel pretending to be on the sand. Above him was the TV and we turned on Nemo, swimming through the sea. The dentist said he was a fisherman and was going to catch the puffer fish and his fingers were like the hook and I pretended to swim around the dental chair. Giggles came from my son, this was not like being at the dentist this was Nemo world.

The dentist said my son had to open his mouth just like a puffer fish, so we could count how many teeth a pufferfish has, because he really didn’t know. So I opened my mouth, making funny fish faces. My son, happy as happy copied and we spent the next 15 minutes being puffer fish, only clamping down on the poor dentists fingers once. We managed to clean, take x-rays (because x-rays sound like sting rays) and have a full dental check with one child who thought it was hilarious. He was even happy to make another appointment, though next time could it be wiggles dentist!! Whilst I let go of any last remaining ounce of dignity, swimming around a dentist chair with goggles on in my bathers, making fish faces, at least my son now wanted to go to the dentist (or he has some sick sense of humour wanting to watch me humiliate myself!)

Top 10 Tips for Taking Your Autistic Child to the Dentist

1. Make it fun!

2. Use an incentive (nice way of saying bribery!)

3. Meet the dentist first, prior to your appointment so you know they understand your child.

4. Make a social story (if that works for your child.)

5. Don’t wait!! Waiting in a waiting room, can be tricky and build anxiety, so I have my dentist ring me a few minutes before my appointment. I am outside with my child, either in the car, or in the park nearby, so we are not waiting in the environment. We can walk straight into our appointment, or I book the first appointment of the day, so there is no one else around.

6. Sensory needs. As the dentist is such an overwhelming sensory experience, work out a way to soften the sensory overload. For example: earphones with their favourite music or to connect to an iPad that you can hold, a weighted blanket to put over them to help them lie down, their sunglasses to block out the light etc

7. Involve your child. As my child has grown up, he likes to be involved, handing the dentist the instruments, seeing his teeth on the computer, being told what is happening.

8. Routine! One of the best things our dentist did in our initial consultation was pretend to take an x-ray. My child didn’t need an x-ray but as he explained if he does it the first time, then if/or when he does need it, it is already part of the routine. My child expects to have one, so each visit has the same routine.

9. Lists. We take a list (or visual board) with each thing that will happen on the list. We check it off as it occurs. This helps the child know what is coming up and how many more things to go.

10. Reward. Reward your child at the end. More importantly reward YOURSELF!!

Remember, the appointment will end, you and your child will get through it, (even if it is a nightmare). One hour of courage and it will be over.

Let me know how you go or if you have any tips I can add for other Mums! GOOD LUCK



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