My two children could not be more different if they tried. One begs to brush her teeth every five minutes and the other, my child with sensory sensitivities, seems to believe that brushing his teeth is an evil invention originally designed for medieval torture. Unfortunately for many autistic children with sensory issues simply not brushing teeth is not a viable option. Dental care is important but how to we protect our autistic child’s teeth without making them miserable in the process?
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Why Won’t My Autistic Child Let Me Brush His Teeth?
It’s essential to understand why a child with autism spectrum disorder may have a hard time with the dental health routine. For children with sensory processing disorders, the toothbrushing process can be overwhelming due to sensory sensitivities, leading to anxiety or difficulty grasping its purpose.
Here are some common factors contributing to a child’s struggles:
- Sensory Overload: Sensory sensitivities can cause an overload when it comes to the taste, texture, or smell of toothpaste, the sensation of bristles on their teeth, or the sound of brushing.
- Routine Disruption: Autistic children often thrive on established routines, and introducing toothbrushing into their daily schedule can disrupt their familiar patterns.
- Anxiety: The fear of potential pain or discomfort during toothbrushing can make it a daunting task for a child on the autism spectrum.
How Do You Get Autistic Children To Brush Their Teeth?
For my son in particular I recognized that one is the biggest stressors around teeth brushing was having to leave a preferred activity to engage in the non-preferred activity. In other words, disrupting his routine and taking him away from something he enjoyed in order to have him do something he did not like.
We also faced a communication break down where I was not doing an effective job of communicating to him what to expect before, during, and after the tooth brushing. From what I see looking back I think my son’s perspective was that he had to leave this amazing thing he loved and now he’s stuck doing something he hated for an unknown amount of time and he had no idea what kind of potentially unpleasant activity might come next.
I cannot sing the praises of a visual schedule enough!
Using visual supports along with a ton of positive reinforcement, such as verbal praise, has been an absolute game changer in our home.
Now that my son can clear see the schedule he not only knows what to expect in the routine but also understands that this teeth brushing business is not going to last forever and soon we will move on to the next item on the list. The more that good oral hygiene habits have become a part of our regular daily routine the less tears have been shed over the process.
I would not go so far as to say that my son enjoys brushing his teeth at this point but we have reached a place where he doesn’t get upset at all. He checks his chart, reads it aloud, gives a loud exasperated sigh that should really belong to an 80 year old man, and then goes to the bathroom to get the task over with as soon as possible. And honestly that is a major win in my book! (Also that sighs absolutely gets me every time. He’s so dang precious.)
Tips For Brushing Autistic Kids Teeth
The visual supports are of course a great way to handle any resistance around the routine aspect of brushing teeth but what about those with sensory processing disorder? Sensory processing issues are a real hurdle to cross when it comes to oral health.
Depending on how communicative your child is you may need to do a little detective work to figure out which part of the oral care routine is the most offensive for your child. It’s so important to remember here that no two neurodivergent kids are the exact same. Just because some autistic kids do better with a certain texture in no way means that every autistic kid will prefer that texture. Really that’s just part of being human. We all have different preferences.
Here’s some things to consider:
Choosing The Right Toothbrush
Electric Toothbrush vs Manual Toothbrush
There are so many different types of toothbrushes on the market. Some kids will prefer electric toothbrushes where others will want to stick with the plain regular toothbrushes. My son is definitely team manual toothbrush. If I handed that sweet angel a vibrating toothbrush to put in his mouth I would be sure to hear his new favorite phrase, “no bye bye the end”.
The type of bristles is also something to keep in mind. Silicone bristles provide a gentler and more adaptable option compared to conventional toothbrushes.
Choosing The Right Toothpaste
I personally have had two separate toothpaste experiences that give me so much compassion for my little guy. Once at church camp I borrowed a friend’s toothpaste that quickly turned into a foaming disaster. She loved the stuff for the massive foam it created and I just felt like a rabid animal that needed rescuing. A second time I received a small travel sized tube of what was supposed to be a more natural toothpaste but honestly I remain convinced that it was just ground up sidewalk chalk that had been shoved into a tube. Both experiences were decidedly short-lived and never to be repeated. Yuck!
If your child has oral sensitivities then choosing the right flavor and texture of your toothpaste will be very important.
Think of a flavor you really hate. Something that sends your gag reflex into overdrive.
Now imagine someone much bigger than you forces that flavor into your mouth every single day, rubs it all around your teeth and tongue, and to top it all off you have a hard time communicating to them that the taste is truly disgusting.
Enter flavor-free toothpaste. It’s so much easier to me than trying to play a game of which artificial fruity or minty flavor is the least offensive.
Jack N’ Jill Natural Certified Toothpaste is flavor free, flouride free, and safe if swallowed. I personally consider it my holy grail toothpaste for my kids.
Using A Visual Timer
Brushing teeth can be a super daunting task. This is even more true if your child feels anxious about how long they are expected to keep brushing.
Using a visual timer is a great way for young children to understand how much time has passed and how much is remaining. This helps a lot with reducing anxiety. (P.S. I use visual timers for so many things in our home with all of my kids. They are one of my favorite visual aids.)
Teach Your Child To Brush Their Own Teeth
Personal hygiene is an important skill for independent living but another thing to consider is how giving your autistic child some ownership over this vital skill could help create a more positive experience.
Independence is an excellent motivator. Not to mention when your child is in control of the process it will help to reduce the amount of anxiety that they feel. I know I feel less anxious about situations that I can control versus those I cannot. The same is true for our kids.
An occupational therapist is a fantastic resource for teaching children how to gain and improve on the skills needed for daily living. If your child struggles beyond what you feel equip to navigate then seeking out professional help is a great next step.
Occupational therapists are trained around all kinds of sensory needs and they can be a very valuable resource for your family.
Understanding the unique challenges that children with autism spectrum disorder may face when it comes to dental health is crucial. Sensory sensitivities, anxiety, and disruptions to routines can make the toothbrushing process particularly challenging.
As a parent it can be frustrating at time but try to remember that your child is not being willfully stubborn or resistant. Try to sympathize with them and be patient with the process.
It is important to understand that autism is not a disease; it’s simply a different way of experiencing the world. Autism is a part of a person’s identity, and it’s not something negative or bad. It’s crucial to embrace neurodiversity and recognize that there is no “cure” for autism because it’s not an illness. Instead, our focus should be on supporting and respecting individuals with autism, celebrating their unique strengths, and helping create a more inclusive and understanding society. The information, tips, and advice on this website are based on my personal experience but no two children are the same. What works for our family may not work for yours. No material on this site is intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.