I don’t know one person who likes going to the dentist. But the challenges facing a child with autism in the dental chair are multiplied exponentially. Truly, it is a sensory nightmare. My sons go to a busy university clinic with chair after chair in a large, open room, so there’s no privacy and a cacophony of noise.
Before taking them there for the first time, I talked at great length about their needs with the staff, then sat anxiously in the waiting room. Ten minutes later, I heard my son’s familiar blood curdling scream and a doctor shouting, “Sometimes we have to do things we don’t like!” Soon, my son came careening into the waiting room trying to find me with the doctor hot on his heels. Great.
Restraint was out of the question because it would’ve made my son hysterical, so I asked for nitrous oxide during the exam, a private room, headphones playing his favorite music and the same favorite dentist from one visit to the next. All went well from then on, as long as this protocol was followed to the letter.
In retrospect, it would’ve been good if I’d known about social stories or had some other way to prepare them for their first visit. It’s not like I didn’t talk to them at great length, but I’d always forget some element, such as the texture of the toothpaste, the stiff apron — and they really didn’t have a picture of what to expect.
Now, there’s a series of three books that address these kind of experiences. Inspired by her son, author Avril Webster has created the “Off We Go!” series to help special needs children ages four-to-eight prepare for outings to the grocery store, hair salon and dentist. The books provide a walk-through of what a child can expect and a point of departure for parents to talk about what an impending trip bodes.
I’m a great believer in useful products like seamless socks, noise reducing headphones, chew toys and story books to make foreign environments less ominous, just to name a few. Anything that helps ease our children’s path through their day gets my vote. Small things make a big difference.