Top 5 ways to treat patients on the autism spectrum

April 27, 2020
Dr. Ian Marion

Volume 54, Issue 5

While dental care is widely available and often routine for the general public, pediatric patients with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) can face certain challenges when it comes to visiting the dentist. Treating pediatric patients with ASD can be a challenging experience for not only the patient, but the provider as well. The good news is that there are steps offices can take to help make a visit to the dentist more comfortable and productive for patients with these conditions. Treating children with this condition won’t always be easy, but it is most certainly rewarding.

1. Plan Ahead

It is important that the entire dental office has a plan in place and is on the same page when it comes to treating patients with ASD. From the front desk staff, to the assistants, to the doctor, everyone can contribute to making visits smooth and productive. A good place to begin is designating a specific room for these patients and scheduling a little extra time to help the patient get acclimated to the noises and smells of a dentist office. Also, minimizing waiting time as much as possible allows the patient to focus all their energy on the appointment, rather than the waiting room.

2. Ask Questions

This may sound like a no-brainer but asking questions to learn as much as you can about the patient before their appointment-even before seeing them for the first time-will give the staff a great head start. Children with ASD can have a wide variety of symptoms, and the more a dentist knows, the better they can design a plan to meet that individual’s needs. This can be accomplished through a simple questionnaire or by having the parents or caregivers come to the office without their child to review questions and medical history. 

3. Alternative Communication Methods

Children with ASD can have a wide variety of communication skills, ranging from typical verbal skills to those who are completely non-verbal. Having a variety of communication methods and using those most effective for the patient can be the deciding factor in the success or failure of an appointment. Some tools that can be helpful for patients include social stories, picture exchange communication systems, and sign language.

4. Gradual Desensitization

Going to the dentist can be a scary experience for many children with ASD. A typical dental office is full of unusual sights, sounds, smells, and even tastes. Helping patients with this condition get used to the new sensations of a dental office little by little over a period of many visits can help them cope with the experience of visiting a dental office much better. This requires patience and commitment from the dentist and family and can result in greatly improved visits.

5. Parent Encouragement

Dentists normally only see patients twice a year, which means we count on parents to help make sure oral hygiene needs are being met outside of the office. A dentist can make a huge difference by empowering and encouraging parents and giving them tools to help teach their child oral hygiene and maintain it. The skills the patient learns can end up paying dividends throughout their lives.

In addition to the information listed above, I advise dental professionals who want to learn more about implementing methods to treat pediatric patients with ASD to do their own research and decide what processes would work best for their office and staff. As an active member of the Chicago Dental Society, I also have the ability to turn to other dental professionals for their insight and advice to help me stay at the top of my field, an added benefit of being involved in organized dentistry. I hope that reading through these tips and recommendations provides more clarity and comfort when it comes to providing dental care to patients with ASD.

About the author

Dr. Ian Marion is a Clinical Assistant Professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago College of Dentistry who specializes in treating pediatric patients with ASD, and is an active member of the Chicago Dental Society. His goal is to share simple recommendations and tips to help more dental offices feel comfortable treating kids with this condition and, in turn, ensure a comfortable experience and safe delivery of care for patients with ASD.

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