Treating patients with autism

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  Posted by: The Probe      28th March 2021

In the UK, it is estimated that around 700,000 people are on the autism spectrum, including one in ten children.[i] For dental professionals, treating patients with autism can be a challenge, but with the right approach and better understanding, it is possible to give these patients the care and treatment they deserve.

Understanding autism

First of all, it is important to remember that autism is a spectrum. This means that many people with autism may have only very mild characteristics, and therefore may not have a formal diagnosis. As such, the actual number of people with autism could be considerably higher than the estimated 700,000, especially if mildly autistic people are high-functioning. As such, it is necessary to recognise potential characteristics among some of your patients and to treat them accordingly.

But what is autism?

Autism, by nature, is a developmental disability that impacts how individuals communicate and relate to other people. This means that people with autism may have language problems or become overwhelmed by dental treatment, especially if they do not fully understand what the process involves. Plus, many autistic individuals may experience hypersensitivity – this means that sensory information such as bright lights or cold instruments entering the mouth can be very distressing. It’s also worth saying that there could be a personal space issue present. Many of those who suffer from autism dislike people entering their personal space, which is unavoidable when providing dental treatment.[ii]

So, what can dental hygienists and dental therapists do to make treatment a better experience for these individuals?

Treating patients with autism

A good start is to make sure you know which of your patients are autistic. Although it is not a requirement for them to divulge this information, asking them to state it on their medical history forms means that you will be better prepared to treat them by taking extra measures to ensure that they are as comfortable as possible.

After this, consider communication methods and how these can be adjusted. Can you include information on a website about treatment with photographs and other visual aids that the patient can access before their appointment so that they know what to expect? Are there any visual aids or other methods of communication you can use in-practice to help them understand what you are about to do? There is plenty of technology and resources available on the market that can help improve communication with people with disabilities such as autism, and these can make all the difference between a patient feeling scared and overwhelmed, to them feeling comfortable and ready for their dental care.

Even telling these patients what you are doing just before treatment is performed can significantly help. Call patients by their name and describe what sensations they may experience at each stage so that they are forewarned. For example, if you are about to put a mirror in the patient’s mouth to check their teeth, it is a good idea to explain not only the purpose of this but also that the mirror may touch their teeth and inner mouth, and may feel cold. This helps them to process the action before it is performed, and can help them to remain calm, even if the sensations are unpleasant.

Perhaps you can speak to the autistic individual’s family and find out if they are hypersensitive to noise or sounds or taste – by doing so you can try to find alternatives that will help such as a milder mouth wash or even hand scaling if they are triggered by noises. There are nearly always alternatives available.

Many autistic people suffer from anxiety. In order to tackle this, it is a good idea to book them a double appointment if possible, so you can take your time with treatment. You can also suggest that they wait for their appointment in their car or in a familiar space – this may help to prevent the build up of anxious feelings. Flexibility is key.

April 2nd is World Autism Awareness Day, and this is the perfect opportunity to learn more about this disability and apply your learning to treating your autistic patients more responsibly. In practice it could be a good idea to bring this up in a team meeting and share these tips with the rest of the practice so that everyone is on the same page. You can also raise funds for autism charities if you want to support these patients in another way.

In the end, by understanding the condition and going the extra mile to ensure that these patients are comfortable and feel safe in your practice, you can be better equipped to provide them with the care and attention they require.

 

 For more information about the BSDHT, please visit www.bsdht.org.uk call 01788 575050 or email enquiries@bsdht.org.uk

 

Author: DIANE ROCHFORD – President BSDHT – CEB DIP DENT HYGIENE 1996, BSC (HONS) 2016 – DENTAL HYGIENIST

 

[i] BMA. Autism Spectrum Disorder. Link: https://www.bma.org.uk/what-we-do/population-health/child-health/autism-spectrum-disorder [Last accessed December 20].

 

[ii] National Autistic Society. Dental Care and Autism – A Guide for Dentists. Link: https://www.autism.org.uk/advice-and-guidance/topics/physical-health/going-to-the-dentist/dentists [Last accessed December 20].


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