Children with Sensory Sensitivities: Tips for Planning a Successful Dental Visit
Sensory sensitivities and sensory processing issues are frequently observed in children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) or ADHD. These children tend to experience difficulties with social interaction and often exhibit restricted or repetitive behaviors. They may also demonstrate heightened anxiety, weakened or delayed coordination, and differing levels of communication skills. As you may already suspect, dental visits can be particularly challenging, as a dental office often has bright lights, loud noises, and unfamiliar procedures or positioning.
Try to practice at home before your child's visit.
Whenever possible, try to prepare your child for their dental visit beforehand. Visual imagery, including photos and videos, can help support a positive experience at the dentist. Describing the upcoming appointment to your child using sequential "first, then" statements is especially helpful. For example, "when we go to the dentist, you will first sit in the chair. You will then open your mouth, the dentist will then count your teeth, and then we will go home!". Combining this with visual imagery, or perhaps even practice dental instruments (such as a mirror and toothbrush), will help familiarize your child with what to expect. This predictability will assist them in remaining calm and can also improve independence and self-esteem. Be aware that you may have to repeat this multiple times to reinforce the lesson.
Identify your child's specific sensitivities or triggers.
Children with sensory sensitivities can experience difficulty with a wide range of stimuli. Some of their concerns may include (but are not limited to) sights, sounds, tastes, smells and touch. Possible challenges in a dental office could be as simple as a crowded waiting room, unfamiliar faces, or a distracting space. They might also include the taste or texture of toothpaste, the dental suction, or simply being asked to lie down for an exam. It is important to remember that every child is different. If you are aware of any specific experiences or environments that might trigger or challenge your child, let your dental team know. Asking for a more private space (if available) or asking to be scheduled during a less busy time of the day can make all the difference. You may also consider bringing your child's preferred toothpaste, a beloved blanket from home, or even a pair of noise-canceling headphones.
Encourage your child and remain positive.
Always remember to be patient with your child and to praise them for any progress that they demonstrate. Consider sitting next to them and offering calm, reassuring touch; try to resist the urge to firmly hold your child if possible. Allowing children with sensory sensitivities to make choices regarding their appointment, such as wearing sunglasses or not, may also help promote confidence and lessen anxiety. Practice positive reinforcement by rewarding them after a successful dental visit. This can be something as simple as offering more "playtime" at home afterward or giving stickers. Don't forget to revisit the experience with your child at home after as well. Repeat the appointment again in sequential steps and remind your child that they did a great job.
Return regularly to help your child build trust with their provider.
Perhaps more important than any of the above suggestions is remembering that all good things take time. Be patient with your child and be ready to meet them at their level. It may take several visits, perhaps even years, before a child with sensory hypersensitivities can complete all of the steps involved in a routine dental checkup. As pediatric dentists, we know that one of the most important skills we can possess is the ability to earn your child's trust, which often just takes time and repetition. Be sure to return regularly to help familiarize your child with the dental office and to help promote successful dental visits in the future.