How Adults with Autism Can Work with Their Dentists to Create a Positive Care Experience

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Going through daily life as an adult with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) presents some challenges that others don’t always understand. Even when you’re living independently and managing everyday responsibilities just fine, a task like going to the dentist can still be hard.

If you feel anxious about visiting your dental professional, you aren’t alone. Dental visits can be noisy, bright, and overstimulating. Plus, they’re not something you do very often, so it’s a strange environment to be in. Even with these challenges, going to the dentist doesn’t have to be stressful or uncomfortable. As an individual with ASD, you can get prepared ahead of time and work with your dentist to create an experience that makes you feel much more at ease.

Helping Others Understand Your Experience

Thankfully, the media often shows more accurate portrayals of people with ASD these days, but that increased awareness doesn’t mean that others fully understand how you experience life. This is your opportunity to be an advocate for yourself (and other ASD patients) by helping your dentist’s office understand a little more about you and how they can create an environment that is friendlier for people with ASD.

One mental health practitioner who has ASD uses the example of video gaming systems to explain how people with ASD are wired differently. One console works one way, and another works a different way. Neither is good or bad, nor right or wrong — they’re just different. People are like these operating systems: we’re all wired differently. This means the way you experience life is going to be different, too.

This concept can be helpful for dentists to understand when working with ASD patients. Before your appointment, start the conversation with your dentist and other staff to help them see that those with ASD may have a different experience than someone who is neurotypical simply because of how you’re wired. Helping them see these differences is the first step toward your dentist making any accommodations you need.

What Concerns May Arise From a Dental Visit?

Every individual is unique, so your experience may be completely different from someone else’s. However, issues like sensory overload, communication differences, and anxiety are common concerns for someone on the spectrum when visiting the dentist. Knowing what to expect will help you prepare for a visit in case any of these issues arise.

Sensory Differences

It’s normal for someone with ASD to process sights, sounds, and other senses differently. You may be under-sensitive, over-sensitive, or even both at times. You know better than anyone how different sensory experiences affect you. Before your visit, it also helps to know what will happen so you can be prepared with coping strategies that work for you.

  • Touch – The dentist and hygienist will examine your mouth, and a cleaning typically involves flossing, brushing with a special toothbrush, and removal of plaque with a metal scraper. If you’re sensitive to touch, these sensations can feel uncomfortable.

How you can prepare – If you aren’t already in the habit of flossing and brushing at home, work on practicing this regularly. The way the dentist does it will feel a little different, but practice will help you get used to some of these sensations. Another way to feel more comfortable with the sense of touch is to ask the dentist to continually tell you before they do something new so there are no surprises.

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  • Light – In order to see inside your mouth really well, a dentist uses a bright overhead light. The office and waiting room may also have bright fluorescent lights.

How you can prepare – Some people feel more comfortable wearing sunglasses to block out these bright lights. Many dentist offices also now have TVs. You can ask the office staff to keep the TV turned off, if that helps.

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  • Sound – The tools dentists use can get noisy, from the whirring of the motorized toothbrush to the scraping of cleaning plaque off your teeth. These sounds are completely normal, but they make some people feel nervous.

How you can prepare – You may want to bring noise-cancelling headphones or plan on playing your own soothing music that helps you feel more relaxed.

  • Movement and balance – The hygienist will have you sit in an examination chair that they will raise and lean back. This movement and the vibration makes some people feel discomfort and a sense of being off balance.

How you can prepare – You can ask the hygienist to adjust the chair before you get in to avoid these sensations.

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You can also ask the staff of the dentist’s office to make accommodations that reduce sensory sensitivities. Some of the accommodations that Autism Speaks recommends include dimming overhead lights, using incandescent rather than fluorescent lights, and closing doors to minimize sounds that come from other areas.

Communication

Being able to communicate with the dentist and their staff is another key to lowering discomfort and anxiety. It may help to let them know how you prefer to communicate. If using visual signs like pictures helps, let them know that. Ask them to be clear with instructions, using consistent terminology. It’s also a good idea to ask the hygienist or dentist to tell you everything they will do before doing it. Establishing clear communication will ensure you know exactly what to expect so your experience is less stressful.

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Anxiety

Not everyone who has ASD also has anxiety, but it is a common experience, especially in new situations like going to the dentist. A recent study published in the journal Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders found that the two main factors that may contribute to your anxiety are change and miscommunication.

Talking with your dentist ahead of time will help avoid miscommunication, but even with good communication, a dentist visit is still a change from your normal routine. The best way to make something different feel more familiar is to learn all you can about it before you go. This health report from Autism Speaks recommends gradual exposure to a new situation so that it starts to feel more normal without being upsetting. You may want to start by looking at pictures describing what it’s like to go to the dentist and reading about what to expect. You may also want to visit the dentist office to see what it looks like and observe someone else getting a dental cleaning before your own appointment.

If you have felt anxious in new situations before, you probably already have some coping tools. Don’t hesitate to use those, and bring anything else you need to your appointment. You may want to bring something that helps with self-soothing, such as a soft or weighted blanket, a stress ball, or a calming scent like lavender.

It may also help to learn about and practice relaxation techniques before your appointment so you can use them if you start to become anxious. Progressive muscle relaxation is a great technique to try. To do it, focus on a set of muscle groups, tensing the muscles for a few seconds and then relaxing them, and then move on to another muscle group. Another helpful technique is to focus on your breathing. Place your hands on your belly so you can feel it rise and fall as you breathe, and focus on taking slow, deep breaths through your nose.

You don’t have to wait for anxiety to creep up to give these techniques a go. Try using them and other coping strategies before and during your appointment to lower stress so that it doesn’t get overwhelming. Remember that it’s entirely normal for a dental visit to make you feel nervous, but that doesn’t mean you’re helpless. These strategies will give you the tools you need to lower stress and make your dental visits much more comfortable.