Sensory Dentistry

childrens dentistry sign

childrens dentistry sign

Going to the dentist can be a traumatic and emotional experience for a child.  Add the challenges of a sensory processing disorder and the issues are multiplied. Here are some pointers to help plan and implement a successful first visit with the dentist.

Inform the Dentist

Since it is almost impossible to find a pediatric dentist who has been trained in treating children on the Autism Spectrum or children who have sensory processing disorders, it is important for the parent or Occupational Therapist to communicate with the Dentist about that child’s special requirements.

  • Your Child’s Particular Sensory Sensitivity to touch, oral stimuli, taste, smell, sound, vibration, movement, and light must be addressed.
  • Sensory-adapted Dental Environment If your child is sensitive in any of these areas, your dentist must be prepared to make adaptations to the environment in the dental clinic (such as dimming the lights in the waiting room to make a more calming atmosphere.) This will decrease aversive sensory stimuli, and reduce anxious and uncooperative behaviors during oral care.
  • Dental Hygienist approaching with pick and mirror

    Dental Hygienist approaching with cleaning tool and mirror

    Adjust Schedule Routine by making the appointment time at a normally inactive period and allowing extra time for preparation and implementation of the sensory strategies.

  • Options for treatment include use of a mild anti-anxiety medication or (in severe cases) treatment in hospital under general anesthetic.

Occupational Therapist participation

An OT could accompany the child and parent to the dental clinic to facilitate sensory strategies, calm the child during the dental cleaning, and educate the dental practitioners.

Prepare before the actual procedure

  • A Social Story used in advance of an appointment with the dentist can prepare the child for the sequence of events that she can expect to occur during dental treatments. When accompanied by pictures (to facilitate the child’s understanding) social stories guide and teach appropriate behavior and reduce anxiety by explaining the routine and increasing the predictability of the experience with the dentist.
  • Dentist discussing procedure with child patient

    Dentist discussing procedure with child patient

    Acclimatization visit entails several trips to the dental clinic prior to the actual cleaning to establish a routine of going to the dentist and reduce the child’s anxiety associated with the dental clinic.

  • Sensory Diet,Heavy Work Have your child do some physical activity just prior to the visit, such as pulling a loaded wagon, jumping on a trampoline or skipping.

Calming techniques during the procedure

  • Apply pressure to the child’s joints and large muscles; these “proprioceptive” activities can help decrease a child’s tendency towards overreaction to touch. Provide deep pressure through bear hugs, back rubs, or body  massages.
  • Place a weighted vest to the legs or torso to supply extra calming sensory input. You can fill the pockets of a vest or jacket with beanbags, or you can use a leaded X-ray apron if available in your dental office.
  • Use a handheld massager or a vibrating pillow to deliver relaxing vibrations. As a safety precaution, be sure that the child doesn’t put the massager on his or her neck.
  • Small child undergoing dental procedure while holding doll for comfort

    Small child undergoing dental procedure while holding doll for comfort

    Wrap the child’s arms, legs, or trunk with elastic bandage wraps. Be careful not to get the bandage too tight. Start with the wrist or ankle and wrap your way up the arm or leg. This can be turned into a fun game of “mummy” or “doctor.”

  • Familiar toy or fidget object for self-calming during the dental cleaning (think Linus Blanket).

Resources:

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About Emily Lauren

Jenny Clark, OTR/L, BCP (AOTA Board Certification in Pediatrics), is a licensed pediatric occupational therapist with over 22 years experience working as a school-based occupational therapist, independent contractor for early intervention services, private practitioner, speaker, consultant, author, and inventor. Jenny currently owns a pediatric therapy private practice, Jenny’s Kids, Inc. Jenny Clark Jenny is the author of the best-selling book on sensory processing entitled Learn to Move, Move to Learn: Sensorimotor Early Childhood Activity Themes(AAPC 2004), (Starter Kit available) More recently Ms Clark has written a sequel Learn to Move, Moving Up! Sensorimotor Elementary School Activity Themes (AAPC 2009). In addition, she has published two DVD’s Learn to Move: Dinosaurs (AAPC 2005), a companion to her first book, and Sensory Processing Disorder Kit: Simulations and Solutions for Parents, Teachers, and Therapists (AAPC 2006), which won the 2007 media in excellence video award from Autism Society of America. Jenny’s newest publication is a music CD, Sing, Move, Learn (AAPC 2010), which accompanies the songs in her first book. Ms. Clark is a contributing author for the book Autism Spectrum Disorders: A Handbook for Parents and Professionals (Greenwood Publishing Group 2007), as well as a chapter author for Autism Spectrum Disorders: Foundations, Characteristics, and Effective Strategies. (Pearson Publishing 2011 by Boutot & Myles). Jenny is the inventor of the Patent-Pending “Weigh” Cool Bracelet. Jenny has spoken both nationally and internationally on a variety of topics, including sensory integration/processing. She received her bachelor’s degree in Occupational Therapy and graduated with distinction from the University of Kansas.
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