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Taking a Child with Autism to the Dentist: A Detailed Guide

By Joanna McGowan

Sponsored by BRMI in collaboration with Jennifer Margulis


Child at the dentist

Every family affected by autism faces taking a child with autism to the dentist at some point.


If your child is on the spectrum, teeth are likely an issue.


Our kids have sensory issues. It may not be easy to brush the teeth, let alone floss regularly.


In addition, our kids tend to be picky eaters—seeking out carbs and sugars whenever they can.


But even kids on strict gluten-free and grain-free diets have dental issues.


Many of our kids are nonverbal. So we parents might not even know they’re having an issue with their teeth until it is undeniable and past the point of natural healing. 


In addition, many of our kids cannot sit still for an in-office procedure, making dental surgery the only option.


We try to eat really clean

In our home, even though we try our best to eat really clean, my son who has autism devours more dried fruit than he should. 


The dried fruit contains no added sugar. But it’s sticky, and I know it’s not good for his teeth. 


BRMI Thought about the importance of eating whole foods

Click here for the BRMI biography on Weston A. Price


Taking a child with autism to the dentist can cause anxiety, fear

Dental issues in a child with autism can be extremely scary and induce a lot of anxiety


Maybe you’ve heard stories of children experiencing regression following dental surgery.

 

Or you might be concerned about what your child is being exposed to via IV medication, fillings, and dental treatments. 


A conventional dentist will downplay the risks of toxic dental substances. 


But you know that our kids are the canaries in the coal mine. So you might not want to use mercury, BPA, fluoride, plastic amalgams, or even conventional dental floss.


My son Christopher’s dental problems began at age five

My son Christopher has severe autism. He’s mostly nonverbal.


When Christopher was five-years-old, he had dental caries and several cavities. 


His dental issues were extremely stressful for me. 


I knew I had a lot to learn. 


How I wished someone would give me a to-do list and a not-to-do list.


This article about taking a child with autism to the dentist, like Christopher, contains a lot of information. 


It’s everything I wished I knew when I was a young mom taking a child with autism to the dentist


Are you ready to dive in?


Here we go!


Prevention (not always possible) is always the best medicine

Everyday dental care can be extremely tricky for kids on the autism spectrum. Our kids often have limited diets. And sensory issues. In addition, they may not be able to tell you if they’re in pain.


When my son Christopher was really little, we found it nearly impossible to brush his teeth.


This simple act, that parents of neurotypical children take for granted, was a major ordeal. 


It was bad. Coaxing didn’t work. Explaining didn’t work. Putting on kid-friendly music about teeth-brushing? Forget it. Instead, my husband and I would have to hold him down. Then poor Christopher would either close his mouth or shake his head wildly. 


We didn’t want the experience to be traumatic, and we certainly didn’t want to hurt him with the toothbrush.


Using oral swabs

At the suggestion of our ABA therapist, we purchased disposable oral swabs. 


These are basically a sponge on a stick often used for older adults paralyzed by strokes, people who are bedbound and can’t use their arms, and others with physical impairments. 


The swabs were a great idea. 


They worked perfectly because there were no hard edges, like with a toothbrush. We would just put a dab of toothpaste on the swab and basically shove it in his mouth. 


This helped Christopher get used to the idea of having something in his mouth. A big bonus was that if he shook his head from side to side, he didn’t get hurt. 


I ordered a box of 250 swabs and we used them for about 4 months while he got used to the brushing. 


After those months of swabbing his mouth, Christopher got comfortable, and we were able to switch to brushing with a toothbrush.


It took a long time. But don’t give up. Eventually Christopher, who is severely affected, was able to use a regular toothbrush. 


Try a vibrating toothbrush

Some children with sensory issues prefer a vibrating toothbrush.


Others can’t tolerate the vibration. 


They’ll let you know. But for many, like Christopher, these toothbrushes provide just the right amount of sensory stimulation, and they will be happy to brush their teeth. 


Softer, kid-friendly toothbrushes

There are also traditional toothbrushes that are softer and more kid friendly. 


A bendable training toothbrush might do the trick. Or an organic toothbrush made from bamboo that is safer for your child to gnaw. 


Even if you’re taking your child with autism to the dentist often, don’t give up on preventative oral care

Even if your child is sensitive and fighting you every step of the dental way, don’t give up. 


If it seems impossible to help your child with autism have good oral hygiene, just keep at it. Be kind to yourself, embrace the imperfect, and do the best you can to clean his teeth. 


Add oral hygiene to your child’s therapy

Every therapist working with Christopher incorporates toothbrushing into his therapy. 


Practicing with a therapist helps us and helps him. 


For whatever reason, Christopher’s therapists seem better able to get to those back teeth than we are. And he’s less likely to keep trying to suck the toothpaste with them.


All about toothpaste

If ingested, fluoride is toxic. It’s almost impossible for neurotypical kids (and grown-ups) to avoid ingesting fluoride when they brush their teeth. 


It’s even harder for children with autism. 


Our spectrum kids will actively swallow toothpaste or sneak into the bathroom when no one is looking to squeeze the toothpaste tube, swirl toothpaste on the mirror or the floor, or just sit and eat paste.


Luckily, there are many fluoride-free baby toothpastes available


Read the ingredient labels

But beware: You have to read the ingredient labels


Many contain a lot of other crappy ingredients that are best to avoid. These include sodium lauryl sulfate, saccharin and other artificial sweeteners, and dyes. 


Toxin-free organic toothpastes are available at a health food store, local co-op, or Whole Foods. These contain better ingredients, like neem and essential oils.\


BRMI Thought about avoiding waging war on our oral microbiome

They’re safer for your whole family. 


But they also tend to be more expensive. 


Stock up when they go on sale. And, if you don’t have one for yourself, borrow a friend’s membership to a big box store where you can buy in bulk at more affordable prices.


DIY non-toxic toothpaste 

You always have the option to make your own. There are many affordable and easy-to-make DIY toothpaste recipes on the internet. DIY Natural has some here. Heather Dessinger, a DIY guru, has one here


You can also make your own tooth powder, if you prefer.


Put the toothpaste in a jelly jar and dip your toothbrush in it. Or in portable squeeze tubes.


Flossing, a major fuss

We haven’t had much luck with flossing. 


Conventional flosses contain forever chemicals that can disrupt a child’s hormone system. Some also contain fluoride, which is a toxin autism families should do their best to avoid.


Christopher likes Brush Buddies Monkey Flossers. They also make Justin Bieber flossers, if your child is a fan.


These flossers do not advertise that they are fluoride-free, but I contacted the company and a customer service representative confirmed that these flossers do not contain fluoride. 


For regular string floss, our family also uses Dr. Tung’s Smart Floss, available at your local health food store or in multipacks that are the most economical.


Other products for preventative oral care

Living Libations makes organic, non-toxic personal hygiene products which our family loves. A friend told me about the company, and I indulge in their beauty products when I get birthday or holiday money.


Their dental products include Neem Enamelizer Liquid, which helps remineralize the teeth and prevent cavities; Happy Gum Drops Oil Swishing serum (which is a mouthwash alternative); and Happy Gum Drops (which can be used as toothpaste, put on floss, or massaged into the gums. These get in between the teeth to clean gently).


When we first started brushing Christopher’s teeth using the oral swabs, the only thing he would let us put in his mouth was their Wild Child Healthy Gum Drops.


But Living Libations products are spendy and you have to pay for shipping from Canada. 


Natural remedies for inflamed gumsI

If your child has a toothache or inflamed gums, you can try dabbing a drop of undiluted organic clove oil on the swollen area. Be aware that clove oil will sting.


Gargling with hydrogen peroxide diluted in water can also help. 


But hydrogen peroxide is not safe to swallow. 


No matter how proactive you are, you will find yourself taking a child with autism to the dentist. Try not to get upset if the dentist acts surprised by the not-healthy state of your child’s mouth. Don’t take it personally. It is not a failing on your part as a parent.


Our kids are sensitive. We’re doing the best we can.


Love your dentist

To reiterate, even if your family’s diet is exemplary and your oral hygiene at home is going well, you will likely be taking your child with autism to the dentist more than for the annual checkup.

So it's really important to make sure that you have a good relationship with your dentist


If your dentist is going to insist you do things you’re not comfortable doing, be annoyed by your questions, or belittle you for your views, find a different dentist! 


We are very lucky to have a dentist we like and trust. 


Our dentist knows I don’t use fluoride for any of my children. 


Even though she recommends fluoride to her patients, she’s never made me feel bad about wanting to avoid it. 


When I shared my concerns about over-exposure to toxins, she listened respectfully. 


She doesn’t agree with me. But she treats us all with kindness and honors our differences of opinion.


So how do you find a good dentist?

So how do you find the right dentist for your child with autism or other special needs?


I wish there were an easy answer. But just know that it’s going to take a little research and lots of trial and error.


The two best ways:


1. Start by narrowing down your search to “biological dentist” and “holistic dentist” and “natural dentist” plus the name of your city and state. There are also helpful on-lists of holistic dentists and of biological dentists

BRMI Thought...We prefer the term Bioregulatory Dentistry

Click here for an article on Bioregulatory Medicine vs. Biological Medicine.


These practitioners believe in taking the health of the whole person into account. They pay attention to how dental procedures will affect the whole person, not just their teeth.


Biological dentists and holistic dentists usually don’t promote fluoride (some even insist that their patients be fluoride-free) and they also make an effort to use less toxic materials that are mercury-free.


2. The second strategy to find the right dentist is to ask other families with experience taking a child with autism to the dentist for their recommendations.


Join a local social media group for parents of children with special needs, preferably a natural-minded health group, if you can find one. Then ask the group about preferred dentists and which dentists to avoid.


Consider that you will get more honest recommendations by talking to other parents’ one-on-one in real life, on the phone, or at least via the social media app’s chat.


The next step is to call the dentists whose websites look the most promising and the dentists who come highly recommended.


Have a list of specific questions and concerns ready. You will want to know if they treat children with autism; how they work with individuals on the spectrum or with other special needs; how they feel about fluoride or other materials you might have concerns about; and what insurance they take.


Despite our best efforts, many parents face the need for taking a child with autism to the dentist for dental surgery. This can be for something as simple as a cavity, since our kids can’t stay still long enough to get cavities filled in the office.


In part two of this dental guide for families with autism, I’ll share all the things I researched and learned before our son’s first dental surgery. 


About the author of “Taking a Child with Autism to the Dentist”:

Joanna McGowan lives outside of Philadelphia with her husband, three children, and one giant dog. Her oldest son, Christopher, has severe, regressive, nonverbal autism. Joanna is a school counselor, yoga teacher, autism advocate, and infrequent blogger on her website HolisticallyWhole.com. She has a BS is Psychology, an MA in Student Services, and certifications in School Counseling and Yoga. Joanna has volunteered for various autism organizations, including The Autism Community in Action (TACA), the National Autism Association (NAA), and her local church’s Disability Ministry, which was awarded the 2015 Loyola Press Opening Door award for its inclusion efforts. She is also the author of a children’s book, You Are My Star. The book’s illustrations are drawn by children on the autism spectrum and all the proceeds are donated to TACA. In addition, Joanna also volunteers at the SPCA to support her daughter’s project, Cara’s Christmas Wreaths, to raise money for homeless animals. Joanna is committed to fighting the uphill battle for a healthier, less toxic world for our children. She is also very tired and drinks way too much coffee. A different version of this article first appeared at HolisticallyWhole.com.


The information, opinions, and views expressed in this content are solely those of the writer. This material is provided for informational purposes only and should not be considered as medical or professional advice, or a substitute for independent research and verification. Always consult your healthcare provider before implementing any new regimens.









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