Sensory Processing Disorder – Dental Care Techniques For Children Sensitive To Touch

Sensory Processing Disorder - Dental Care Techniques For Children Sensitive To Touch

There are many ways that dental visits have to be adapted to cater to specific patients and their individual needs. One of the biggest challenges for many working within the dental field is working on children with Autism. In particular, sensory processing disorder.

A study done by the University of Southern California found that children who experienced stimulation sensitivities were far calmer and more relaxed during visits to dental offices that had been remade to address those sensitivities. Some of those features included lower lighting, soothing music, projected images moving slowly across the ceiling, and chairs with butterfly wings that were cushioned to feel more like the chair was hugging the child.

Another issue that might need to be addressed is tooth sensitivity. This is a difficult enough problem to handle in adults. But children, especially those on the Autism spectrum who may struggle with touch in the first place, could end up totally resistant to any dental procedure if there is pain or discomfort involved.

Why Children With Sensory Processing Disorder Dislike The Dentist

There could be a number of reasons why a child who has sensory processing disorder may dread going to a dentist. Some of them will be the same as any other child’s anxieties:

  • Fear of pain
  • The look of instruments like drills
  • Past bad experiences
  • Fear of the unknown
  • Stories they have seen in cartoons
  • Stories they have heard from classmates

But a child with sensory issues will have other triggers to take into consideration:

  • Difficulty coping with bright lights
  • Fear or pain caused by loud sounds
  • Discomfort in unfamiliar places
  • Discomfort over textures, such as the chair beneath them
  • Inability to relax around strangers
  • Difficulty coping with breaks in routine

All of these will be compounded when they walk into a dentist’s office. It doesn’t even account for other annoyances that most of us take for granted every day, such as traffic, loud noises in the street, or the long wait before an appointment. A child on the Autism spectrum could experience these as major triggers before they ever get into the dentist’s chair.

What Parents Can Do

Parents reading this can use some tricks to help their child get through the stresses of a dental exam or procedure. Some of them happen long before they leave the home.

  • Find a dentist ahead of time that understands the needs of your child, and is willing/able to accommodate them.
  • Begin explaining the process of the dental visit days ahead of the appointment, if possible. Show them videos, books, or drawings that go through everything step by step.
  • Put on a fake dental visit where you play the dentist, so they can get a feel for the procedures and exams.
  • Make sure you follow their routine through the day in every way other than the visit, to lessen anxiety.
  • Remain communicative and present before, during and after the examination.
  • Lessen sensory triggers; bring sunglasses or a sleep mask for lights, earplugs or headphones with soothing music for sound, and a special toy, blanket or other comfort object.
  • Don’t be afraid to direct the dentist. They will not know your signs of your child’s distress, but you do. You can let them know when breaks are needed, or if there is something they can do to make the process go more smoothly.
  • Consider sedation. Though a last resort, for long, painful or frightening procedures, you may wish to consent to your child being put under for the duration. Keep in mind that this has to be planned in advance, so speak to your child’s dentist before finalizing an appointment. You may also wish to speak to your child’s primary care doctor about anti-anxiety medication for appointments.
  • Start good habits as soon as possible. One of the most important things you can do for your child is to make sure they take good care of their teeth. This won’t mitigate the need for annual exams, but it will lessen the chances of serious dental procedures later on. The best treatment is often prevention, especially when your child has difficulty managing appointments.

What Dental Professionals Can Do

If you are a dental professional reading this, there are things you can do to help, as well. The study mentioned in the introduction showed how offices are already adapting in ways that cater to children with sensory processing disorder. But these tactics can help other children feel more at ease when they slip into your chair, as well:

  • Install light dimmers in the waiting room and exam rooms. Most procedures require an overhead light, which means having the rooms themselves less bright won’t impact your work.
  • Provide more play options for children in the waiting room, and during longer procedures that require waiting.
  • Have music in each room that is soothing and relaxing, but is also appropriate for young children.
  • Consider butterfly chairs. These are special chairs with softer cushions. There are wings that fold up from underneath, creating a ‘cocoon’ that can hug the child while keeping them sitting still. Many children find them comforting, and even fun to sit in.
  • Speak as you go along, gently telling them each part of the process in terms they can understand.
  • Communicate openly and effectively with parents. Ask them if there is anything that can be done during an appointment to help their child feel more at ease. Take their suggestions into consideration. Remember that you are a team, and working together for the best care possible is the ultimate goal.

Making The Dentist a Peaceful Place For Everyone

The dentist’s office can be a stressful environment. Yet, when we look at it from the perspective of a child with sensory processing disorder, we can get a wider view of the environment and ways to improve it. By putting a little bit of time, effort and thought into how dental exams are conducted, we can begin to make the experience less dramatic for everyone.

Find out more about this and other dental topics at Bridge Creek Dental.

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