You are dreading your child's upcoming dental check-up. Why? Because the last one involved screaming, crying, and an embarrassing haul-out from under the waiting room chair. If you have a child with special needs (such as attention-deficit disorder, Down's syndrome, hyperactivity, or autism), many routine things become monumental challenges, including dentists' appointments. If you neglect these appointments, your child's oral health suffers, but if you continue to reinforce a pattern of traumatic dental visits, your child may never go to dental appointments as an adult. How do you master this challenge so that your child develops a healthy relationship with the dentist? The key may be to find a new dentist; one who understands that your child is not a problem, but a person with a disability who requires compassion as well as clinical understanding.   

Old-fashioned methods

Back when you were a child, or perhaps when your parents were children, dentists were not trained to deal with kids who have behavioral difficulties. Learning disabilities, attention-deficit disorder, hyperactivity, depression, and autism were not subjects covered in dental school. Kids with these diagnoses were simply considered "problem" children. Dental visits may have consisted of grumpy dentists forcing kids' mouths open or yelling threats to get them to cooperate. Believe it or not, the dental school textbook, "Behavior Management in Dentistry for Children" is only in its second printing--the first being 40 years ago. Therefore, only in 2014 were behavioral techniques updated to reflect today's measures for assisting the "difficult" child through a check up. If your dentist gets frustrated with your child and seems at a loss to connect with him/her, the problem may be outdated treatment techniques.

Modern methods

The key difference between "old school" dentistry and modern dentistry is that today's pediatric dentist recognizes that each child has a unique capacity for enduring dental appointments. Some will tolerate certain procedures but not others, while for some kids the battle begins the moment they walk in the waiting room. Further, today's pediatric dentists recognize the necessity of accommodating kids who have mental and emotional disabilities. Look for a dentist who:

  • calls you before the appointment to find out what your child's needs are

  • tells you how to prepare your child for the appointment

  • employs front office staff who are comfortable around, and knowledgeable about, special needs children

  • spends time talking with your child prior to doing any dental work

  • explains to your child ahead of time what procedures to expect

  • is honest about any discomfort procedures will cause

  • displays understanding if an appointment needs to be cut short and rescheduled

These qualities are a good start in choosing the right dentist. However, these qualities must be paired with professional preparation specific to your child's needs.

Preparations for special needs

In addition to the qualities mentioned above, the right pediatric dentist for your special needs child will make the following preparations to treat this population:

  1. Large enough office staff to allow a small technician to patient ratio

  2. Flexible appointment scheduling, allowing for late arrival if your child is having difficult day

  3. Clearly understands your child's diagnosis and the proper interactive techniques to make him/her comfortable

  4. Specialized equipment where necessary (for instance, weighted blankets or wraps for autistic children)

  5. Use of sedation dentistry 

  6. Timely and efficient appointments so that children have to wait as little as possible

You walk through any number of challenges as the parent of a special needs son or daughter. Dental visits, because of their critical importance to oral health, are one challenge that must be mastered. Don't put up with a dentist who sees a behavior problem when your child sits down in the exam chair. Find a dentist who understands and accommodates special needs.

Have a peek here to learn more about pediatric dentists in your area.