13 Jul


By Lirio Sobrevinas-Covey, Ph.D.

Regular visits to the dentist are necessary for maintaining dental health and avoiding painful and costly oral and dental problems. Among my contacts with parents of children and adults with autism, I have heard of significant difficulties as a consequence of infrequent dental visits, even when appropriate facilities are available. As a result of delayed or the lack of dental care, surgeries and hospitalization became necessary.

As described by researchers in a recent study “children with autism show heightened responses to sensory input and find these sensations uncomfortable. As such, the dental office, with its bright lights, loud sounds from the dental equipment, and touch of children in and around the mouth, presents particular challenges”.

The problem was addressed in a unique collaboration between pediatric dentists and occupational therapists.

Forty-four (44) patients seen at the Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, (22 with autism and 22 "typically developing" (defined as children not on the autism spectrum)) –underwent two professional dental cleanings. One cleaning took place in a regular dental environment, the other in a sensory adapted dental environment. During each session, the child’s physiological anxiety, behavioral distress and pain intensity were measured.

In the adapted environment, overhead office lights and headlamps were turned off, slow-moving visual effects were projected onto the ceiling, and soothing music was played.

Seat covers that looked like a gigantic butterfly whose wings wrapped around the child and provided a comforting, deep-pressure hug replaced the usual seat covers for dental chairs.

The result – both typically developing children and those with autism spectrum disorders exhibited decreased psychological anxiety and reported lower pain and sensory discomfort in the sensory-adapted environment.

The findings suggest that adaptations in the dental clinic to reduce sensitivities associated with autism could help improve oral health care for children and adults with autism — a group reported to suffer from poor oral health.

Reference: Cermak SA, Stein Duker LI, Williams ME, et al, (2015) Sensory Adapted Dental Environments to Enhance Oral Care for Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders: A Randomized Controlled Pilot Study. Journal on Autism and Developmental Disorders. 2015 May

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