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Dental Options for Children with Sensory Processing Disorders

by William Beel
Dental Options

Entering a paediatric dental clinic is like entering another world. Your child may notice the colorful walls, the hum of dental instruments, and the fragrance in the air. Paediatric dentistry clinics will pay great attention to creating a warm space for young patients. For many children, this specially designed environment helps reduce dental anxiety and creates a sense of security and fun. 

Of course, for children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) or individual sensory issues, the sounds, smells, sights, and feelings can be overwhelming. Maintaining healthy oral health habits for your child can thus be challenging for children with sensory issues. If you are living in Australia, you can get some benefits from the child dental benefit scheme from the government. Read on for tooth options, tips, and tricks for kids with sensory issues.

Understanding Sensory Integration

Sensory integration is the nervous system’s process of organizing sensory information to perform the functions of daily life. Our brain must obtain sensory information from all eight senses and send signals to the body based on that information. 

These eight senses include the five most familiar senses: sight, hearing, touch, taste, and smell. The other three include the vestibule (our sense of movement and balance), proprioception (the sense of our body’s position in space), and the mutual sense (sense of conditions in our body, such as heart rate, hunger, and thirst). Lack of effective response to sensory input can affect daily activities. For example, sensory processing disorders don’t just involve discomfort caused by bright lights or loud sounds; on the contrary, they can make you unable to function in your daily life. 

Sensory Processing Disorders 

Sensory processing disorders can be related to learning, motor development, or behavior problems. These may include coordination problems, inattention, academic tasks, abnormally high or low activity levels, self-care (such as tying shoelaces, putting on clothes, or eating), and inferiority. Self-esteem, poor social interaction, and hypersensitivity to touch, sight, or sound are most easily identified by dental professionals. 

Sensory avoiders are people who overreact to certain sensory stimuli. In contrast, sensory seekers desire specific sensory inputs, such as vestibular or tactile sensations. Since sensory seekers seem unable to get enough sensory information, working in a dental office is usually not that difficult. 

Children who avoid sensation may respond to certain sensory inputs as pain or swelling. This causes your autonomic nervous system to respond with fight, flight, or freeze reactions. Negative reactions can be extreme and include hitting, biting, closing the mouth and eyes, running away, crying or yelling. These actions can make visits to the dentist extremely challenging or even impossible. 

Many children are both sensory seekers and sensory avoiders. Children with sensory processing disorders often seek one sensation and avoid another. Also, no two children are the same and the processing of feelings can change every day or every moment. Considering that these patients may find it difficult to enter more than once, it is recommended that dental teams consider and address the individual needs of each patient.

Prior to Treatment

When treating this type of patient, prior to treatment, effective communication with parents or caregivers is essential. Gathering information about your child’s sensory needs can help prevent challenging behaviors when visiting the clinic. 

Questions to ask parents and caregivers include what the child is sensitive to, what flavors he likes (or dislikes) the most, and whether the patient is sensitive to light. The dental team may also ask if the patient is comfortable lying down and if the overhead monitor should be turned on or off. Questions can extend to the child’s personal care plan and recent experience with dental providers. 

Parents and caregivers are allies of the dental team and working together will help provide the best care for children with sensory processing disorders. These people know their children better than anyone, so it is worth taking the time to listen and learn. Before going on an appointment, this is helpful for parents and caregivers to help their children prepare. It may be helpful to have a meetup visit with the office and staff prior to attending the actual appointment. The lack of such advance visits can leave children feeling overwhelmed by the operating environment. Given that preventing sensory avoidance is easier than correcting sensory avoidance, the dental team must have enough time to care for these patients and allow them to relax at a slow pace. 

During Treatment

When approaching patients during treatment, stay warm and friendly, but never get overly excited. Speak quietly and quietly. These patients should be told what they need to do. For example, “Please open your mouth” is better than “Can you open your mouth for me?” 

Children with sensory processing disorders may be slow to respond to language. Use fewer words and short phrases to give them time to process. Clinically, it can be helpful to provide emotional checklists with text and facial expressions to help children express their feelings. Check frequently to make sure the patient is in good condition. 

Parents or caregivers can help by introducing their children to the recliner at home. Doctors may need multiple appointments to complete this task. At the same time, the patient should be allowed to sit as upright as possible. When using a dental table, a possible solution could be to use foam wedges or sandbags to let the patient rest on it.

These are the factors you need to keep in mind when treating children with sensory issues. Visiting a dentist can be challenging when your child has a sensory issue. Keep these suggestions in mind as discussed and all should be well. If you are living in Australia, you can get some monetary benefits for your child’s dental treatment in the form of child dental benefit scheme offered by the government. However, if your child has sensory processing disorders, you got to be extra careful and handle the situation with patience and care.  

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