News and Notes from The Johnson Center

Oral Health and Autism Spectrum Disorders

JCCHD | Tue, October 28, 2014 | [Autism Treatment][Healthcare]

Children with special needs like autism and Down’s syndrome generally have more cavities, gingivitis, periodontal disease, and missing teeth than the general population. This may be caused by a lack of oral hygiene and/or different medical and behavioral issues.

Eating too many sweets, not drinking enough water, grinding and clenching one’s teeth, pouching food rather than swallowing it, and taking medications that cause a dry mouth (i.e. antihistamines, anti-depressants, anti-psychotics, sedatives, and stimulants) are some of the reasons for the increased amount of cavities and dental issues in children with autism. This calls for regular dental visits and regular check ups. Don’t wait until your child is having a tooth emergency to see a dentist.

Medical issues such as a lack of hand coordination, strength, or agility make tooth brushing and flossing difficult, but not impossible with the right tools and attitude in place. Talk with your occupational therapist about ways to strengthen your child’s hand coordination. Some children have oral-sensory issues or anxiety about objects like a toothbrush in their mouth. You can play games and desensitize those fears. Talk with your local child life specialist or ABA therapist about desensitization methods, social stories, and other options.


Cavity and gum disease prevention are key in oral health. Start off by helping your child brush and floss their teeth on a daily basis. Get your child involved and excited by letting them help pick a toothbrush color or an appropriate location for brushing teeth. Set a schedule and start a route for your child so that they can learn to anticipate when it’s tooth brushing time. Use a visual schedule and/or a social story. Place visuals in the bathroom or tooth brushing location of the correct method of tooth brushing and flossing for your child to see and copy.

Going to the dentist can be a fun experience for your child. First, find a dentist who understands your child’s condition and specific needs, and one whom you trust and feel comfortable working with. Prepare your child for the visit by taking a field trip to the dentist’s office to get familiar with the facility and staff. Help your child practice sitting still like a statue in a dental chair and opening his or her mouth like an alligator several times. Read a social story and use visual sequence cards. Have a reward for the end of the dentist appointment. And perhaps most important, parents and caregivers should stay calm. Children perceive anxiety and will become anxious if they feel a need to be afraid. If you are calm, chances are your child will be calm too.

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