Going to the dentist might just have gotten a little less scary for children with autism spectrum disorder or dental anxiety, thanks to new research published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders. Researchers examined the feasibility of adapting dental environments to be more calming for these children.
Children with autism – as well as some typically developing children – often show heightened responses to sensory input and find these sensations uncomfortable. The dental office, with its bright lights, loud sounds and touching of children in and around the mouth, present particular challenges.
In the study, 44 patients – 22 with autism and 22 children not on the autism spectrum – underwent two professional dental cleanings, one in a regular dental environment, the other in a sensory adapted dental environment. During each session, the child’s physiological anxiety, behavioural distress and pain intensity were measured. Researchers adapted the dental environments by turning off overhead office lights and headlamps, projecting slow-moving visual effects onto the ceiling and playing soothing music. Instead of using traditional means to secure the child in the dental chair, practitioners used a seat cover that looked like a gigantic butterfly whose wings wrapped around the child and provided a comforting, deep-pressure hug.
The team found that both groups of children exhibited decreased psychological anxiety, and reported lower pain and sensory discomfort in the adapted environment.
The study – which represents a unique collaboration between paediatric dentists and occupational therapists – could help improve oral healthcare for children with autism, a group reported to suffer from poor oral health.