Preparing for Your First Appointment with an Autistic Child

If you’ve never worked with an autistic child before, the task can be daunting. You may be expecting a kicking and screaming patient, or a patient that will not open their mouth, no matter how hard you try. The good news is, this can be prevented. With a bit of extra effort before the appointment, a dental exam can be a smooth, positive experience for everyone involved.

Here are four key tips to follow when preparing to work with an autistic child in the dental chair:

  • Gather information about the child before the appointment. This may involve calling the child’s parent ahead of time to have a conversation. This is a great opportunity to learn about particular fears the child may have or to get advice for effective calming methods. The parent should be able to provide everything you need to know about the child’s propensity for challenging behavior.
  • Ask the parent to practice with their child before the appointment. This sets the patient up with some expectations of what the dental appointment will be like.
  • At the appointment, have a system of rewards set up for the patient. For the more energetic children, sitting down in the chair may be a tall order. One of the most effective rewards in lieu of sugary treats can be a puff on a bubble wand. Kids of all kinds love bubbles, and they can be doled out consistently until your request is met. By rewarding even the tiniest positive behavior in little ways, it will inspire more consistent positive behavior.
  • Once a patient follows an instruction fully, stop giving that reward. If the reward continues, it creates confusion about what the reward is really for, and that threatens to unravel the entire appointment. At the end of the appointment, have a single reward to give the patient, such as a small (non-jigsaw) puzzle or a textured toy. These high sensory objects reward the patient for their positive behavior, causing them to be more comfortable at their next appointment.

Every autistic child is different. These tips may change as you work with different children. However, by asking questions and choosing to be prepared, you and your patient will enjoy a successful appointment.