Overcoming Sensory Issues at The Dentist – The First Visit4 min read

Editor’s note: Dr.  Greg Grillo is a non-autistic guest contributor who volunteered to share this helpful article for parents of autistic children to help make dentist visits easier. 

A visit to the dentist’s office is a nerve-racking experience for any child, but for autistic children, it can seem especially overwhelming.  The dentist’s office is a new and scary place and is filled with tons of potential sensory triggers. 

All this can add additional stress to your child on a first visit and can make the prospect of going to the dentist scary for both parents and children. 

As a practicing dentist for the past 17 years, I’ve seen this happen countless times with different children.  However, in that time I’ve also learned how to create a successful first visit. 

Dental care is important for all kids, so let’s take a look at what I’ve found to be the top tips for taking your child on their first visit. 

How to Prepare for a First Visit

Of all the things that go into a dental appointment, I’ve found the two most troublesome for autistic children are meeting new people and the overwhelming number of sensory stimuli.  The following tips deal with both situations. 

You know your child better than anyone else, so it’s your job to determine how to approach each problem.  For example, if your child is scared of strangers, then focusing on a familiarization appointment will be more important than focusing on the new sensory elements that they will encounter.  Ultimately, you are going to choose what is going to work best for your child. 

Practice at Home

A good first step is to practice at home.  Go over what happens at the dental office, and stress why each action is important.  This can help take away some of the unknown from the process, which in turn can make it a less frightening experience for your child.

It’s helpful here to use visual aids, as well.  Having pictures or even videos can really help the child see that this process is not scary.  If your child has a favorite television show or character (like Minnie Mouse or Chase from Paw Patrol), try to find board books or children’s books featuring those characters going to the dentist. 

You can even do a mock appointment and practice having your child keep their mouth open wide.  All of this can help when it comes to the appointment and your child has a feel for what to expect.  The first visit can definitely be challenging, but a little prep at home will take away a lot of the anxiety that comes with it. 

Schedule a Familiarization Appointment

Another big step that some dentists will allow is a familiarization appointment.  This is a chance to visit the office and meet the staff without the pressure of having to undergo any sort of procedure. 

This is extremely helpful for children who don’t like or are afraid of strangers.  Having someone they’ve never met poke around in their mouth can be downright scary.  The familiarization appointment lets them meet and talk to the dentist and possibly go through what will happen at their appointment. 

In addition to the dentist, it’s also a chance to meet the dental hygienist and even the receptionist.  It can be overwhelming to meet all these people on the day of the appointment, so doing it in advance can help make things a bit easier.

Dealing with Sensory Issues

Depending on your child, there may be sensory concerns to keep in mind.  Loud noises and bright lights are commonplace at the dentist office, and these can be disturbing for some children. 

If this is your child, think of ways to mitigate the problem.  For example, having your child wear a pair of sunglasses can help dim a bright light for their sensitive eyes.  A pair of earbuds could also be worn to help muffle some of the dental instrument sounds. 

Each child is unique, so think about what might be an issue for your child and come up with ways that you can help alleviate any sensory issues.

Talk with Your Dentist

Lastly, never be afraid to voice your concerns and have a conversation with your dentist.  We’re here to help and will do whatever we can to make sure each patient leaves happy. 

We also have experience dealing with many different types of kids. 

It’s likely that your dentist can provide some guidance and give ideas on how to make the appointment easier for everyone, especially your child.  We want to make sure that your child gets the dental care that they need, and to do so without having to be afraid of coming back. 

We can also talk through some of the plans for the above tips, and we can help you put them into place come appointment day.  Dental care is extremely important for everyone, and it’s every dentist’s goal to provide it in a friendly and comfortable environment. 

Hopefully these tips have given you ideas on how to help make your child’s first dentist appointment a positive one.  It can be a bit scary at first, but with a little bit of preparation, a positive experience can set the trend for a healthy, happy smile. 

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6 Comments

  1. Good article.

  2. Gees, you think it’s bad now…you should have tried it 50 years ago!  After some horrific experiences, I didn’t go to the dentist for 25 years!  Luckily things are MUCH better now (although certainly not perfect) and I have always had really good teeth!

    1. The fact that dentistry was that bad 50 years ago or more is the main reason my mom had (and still has) dental phobia.  The dentist she saw as a girl in the 50’s was bad, and even slapped her for being scared.  And it doesn’t help that she has a small mouth that is basically a dentist’s nightmare to work on.  So now she needs to see a specific dentist, and sometimes she still needs general anesthesia for dental surgery due to the lingering dental phobia she still has.  And I suspect that if dentistry in the 50’s was as good as dentistry in the 90’s or later, she likely would not have had nearly such a bad case of dental phobia.

  3. I’m going to the dentist tomorrow and I may do some of these for myself!  I have legitimate panic attacks before the dentist. 

  4. It took me many many years to get over my dental phobia, and I’m still not 100%.  However a couple things really help me, now that I know I’m autistic (wasn’t dx’d until 44 yrs old).  Besides letting them know, I also explain that I’ll have my eyes closed and have my iPod with loud music in my earbuds to help drown out the noises (I have extreme auditory sensitivity).  The most important part now, in terms of calming me, is that I request they put the lead drape on me the whole time.  You know, they one they cover you with when they do x-rays.  This heavy weight is very calming.  I also use that in the hospital when I need to have anything done, (ie an IV line put in prior to surgery) — I request the lead drape for the whole time.  Hope this helps!

  5. I’m an adult and I still go to the same pediatric dentist and see the same oral hygienist that I’ve been seeing since I was 4.  They take really good care of me.  Still, I’m terrified of X-rays.

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