In May 2003, I graduated from dental school and was ready to take on any challenge this career had to throw at me. In March 2004, my son was born and brought with him a brand new aspect of life and the different challenges that come with being a new parent. Then in February 2006, my son was diagnosed with autism and everything changed in ways I could never have imagined. All I wanted to know was how to fix it, but I realized that I knew nothing about autism or how to treat it as either a parent or a doctor. For the past 7 years, I have spent every single day working with my son on the basics of life so that one day he will have the ability to care for himself. As a dentist, I have taken my personal experiences into the office to help other parents and patients with autism have a positive experience when they visit. Based on my own experience, I hope to share some advice with you here to help prepare you to care for your patients who are on the autism spectrum.
What is autism? A neurological disorder? A behavioral problem? A delay in socialization?
There are many good resources for information out there, and I would encourage you to do some research to find out what autism is and what it isn’t. While this article won’t go into the specifics of the disorder, I do want to share the five things I’ve learned that every dentist and everyone on his or her team should know before they treat patients with an autism spectrum disorder.
1. Each Person is Unique.
Every child has a unique way in which autism affects them. It can be a lack of or delay in speech or communication, a physical delay in their fine motor skills, behavioral problems, mental development delays, socialization problems, or a combination of all of the above.
2. Know Before You Go
Treating a patient with autism requires understanding what that patient’s needs are. Each child has certain things that will set them off. For example, some kids don’t like bright lights, some don’t like loud noises, some don’t like certain tastes or textures, and some don’t like lying down. Dentists who know this ahead of time will be more successful in creating a positive first visit. Simple patient questionnaires will allow the dentist to get to know the patient’s unique qualities before they even walk in the door.
3. Timing is Everything
Patients with autism are usually on some medication that helps to stabilize their behavior and attention. Speak with the parents about when they take their medication and schedule their appointments around the same time for best results.
4. Baby Steps Make Huge Leaps
The key to treating special needs patients with autism is PATIENCE. You may have to have multiple walk-through visits before you can even get them to open their mouth. Building trust through repetition will create a positive experience. Remember, routine is very important to these patients. Social stories can be used to illustrate what the patient can expect at their visit step by step. Having a social story to share with the families of autistic children will allow them to lay the groundwork for the upcoming visit.
5. Understanding Parents’ Fears and Concerns
One of the most important relationships to build is with the parents. Parents with autistic children are in a constant state of worry. They worry about how their child will behave in public, how people will perceive their behavior, and who can help them deal with the daily struggles they face. Dentists are just a small piece of this puzzle that they work on every day. Getting to know each parent’s concerns and worries will establish a much-needed trust between you and them.
About the Author
Dr. Jacob Dent has been a practicing general dentist for 11 years and is a PDS-supported owner of Sugar Land Modern Dentistry and Orthodontics in Sugar Land, Texas. The father of a 10-year-old autistic child, Dr. Dent serves as an advisory board member for several autism advocacy groups. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The 5 Things You Should Know
About Treating Autistic Patients Before They Walk into Your Practice
One dentist learns from his own firsthand experience how to think about the unique considerations of this patient population