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Friendly Dental Environment Helps Children with Autism

May 13, 2015

By Dean George

Dental anxiety is a real problem for many, perhaps none more than the estimated one in 68 children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, or ASD.  Children with autism are reported to suffer from poor oral health compared to non-autistic children, primarily because of their fear of dental visits.

Kids with ASD may display their own particular pattern of autism, but all have one thing in common: they are terrified of the traditional dental environment with its bright lights, buzzing dental equipment and being touched around the mouth.

Thanks to new research from USC and Children’s Hospital Los Angeles (CHLA), pediatric dentists may soon be transforming their dental environments to make them more relaxing by turning off the overhead lights, playing soothing music and projecting calming visual effects onto the ceiling. The goal is to make their office less intimidating for young patients with special needs.

“The regular dental environment can be quite frightening for children with autism who, not knowing how to react, tend to be completely averse to whatever we’re trying to do,” said Jose Polido, one of the study’s authors and assistant professor at the Herman Ostrow School of Dentistry at USC.

Another way researchers used to successfully treat children with ASD is to secure them in a dental chair using a seat cover that resembles a giant butterfly. Rather than securing them in the dental chair by conventional means, the butterfly seat cover embraces the child in its wings like a reassuring hug.

After their study, the USC/CHLA research team revealed that in a control group of 44 patients – 22 with autism and 22 without autism, all the children displayed decreased psychological anxiety, sensory discomfort and less pain when having their teeth cleaned in a sensory-adapted dental office.

According to a recent article published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, one cleaning took place in a conventional dental environment and the other in a sensory adapted environment. During both sessions each child was carefully monitored for physiological anxiety, behavioral distress and pain intensity.

"One of our long-term goals with this study is to help dentists develop protocols for their own dental clinics to see how sensory components are contributing to behavioral issues," said Sharon Cermak, the study’s lead author and professor of pediatrics at USC’s Keck School of Medicine.  "I think these protocols can then be translated across the globe."

Study authors noted that in addition to helping dentists adapt their clinics to accommodate ASD patients, the findings could also mean fewer insurance reimbursements paid to dental offices for the anesthesia and additional staff that treating ASD patients require. This could mean a cost savings to the health care system in general.

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Copyright 2015, Bloom Insurance Agency, LLC©

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