Taking the bite out of a trip to the dentist

For some families, going to the dentist is as simple as making an appointment. Sure, there’s anxiety about whether you’re flossing enough, whether it’s time for braces, and what those wisdom teeth are up to, but 45 minutes and a few scrapes later it’s all just a memory.

And then there’s going to the dentist for Adam Letourneau. “The first thing we did involved going into the dentist’s building in a positive way,” explains Adam’s mother Anne. “We had pictures of the building at home, and we’d drive to the parking lot and look at the building. Eventually, we were walking into the building, and then into the office, which was real progress.” The Letourneaus, who live in New Brighton, visited their dentist’s waiting room six times before moving towards the exam room. “We would go to the same room and let him try out the chair, and eventually he let them look at his teeth while he was standing up. It took four visits for him to open up so they could count his teeth.”

The entire process of getting Adam, who is now 8, to comfortably see the dentist took a year, but the multistep routine was essential because Adam has autism. “There are a lot of sensory issues that go along with having autism, and one of them for Adam is having things in his mouth,” explains Letourneau. Many autistic children have extreme sensitivities, making the dentist’s office especially scary. Add to that the autistic child’s desire for familiarity and routine and the entire experience can be a nightmare.

Enter Delta Dental of Minnesota, one of the largest providers of dental benefits in the Upper Midwest. According to Dimitri Senaratna, the company’s director of communications, the unique needs of children like Adam were on Delta Dental’s radar. “We recognized that for kids with special needs, going to see the dentist is a traumatic event, and it’s a very complicated event from a parental and dental standpoint,” explained Senaratna. “We decided to talk to Fraser about addressing the issue of helping these children.”

Fraser Institute, a local nonprofit with a reputation for working with children with special needs, jumped at the chance to partner with Delta Dental on this special assignment. Fraser Director Chris Bentley says by working together the two organizations created the perfect solution: a CD with sounds, pictures, and stories of the dentist’s office. “We brainstormed together and came up with the idea of a CD that had social stories and scripts designed to meet the needs of kids with autism,” says Bentley.

Called “My Healthy Smile,” the CD is targeted at kids ages 3–10 and includes social scripts that show children what to expect at a dental visit. Parents can choose between beginner, intermediate, and advanced scripts, which show a child going to the dentist — every step from sitting in the waiting room to getting a new toothbrush is carefully explained. The look, sound, taste, and smell of the experience are mentioned, and additional scripts cover losing a tooth, learning how to brush, and even healthy eating.

As soon as Letourneau heard about “My Healthy Smile,” which came out in February, she got a copy for Adam. “He knows he’s got an appointment coming up in November, so he’s already watched it a couple of times,” says Letourneau. “He watches everything repetitively and it helps him identify with what’s going on.” As a parent, Letourneau found the printable tip sheets on the CD especially helpful when it came to familiarizing the dentist with Adam’s needs. “I was so excited about having pages to print out and carry along to the dentist’s office,” says Letourneau. “It takes the anxiety out of the experience when you know what to expect.” Adam not only knows what to expect in his dentist’s office, he understands why they wear masks, what the bright lights are for, and where the scraping sound comes from.

Carol Dahlke, a registered dental hygienist who worked with Fraser and Delta Dental on the CD, says it sheds light on a topic many dentists aren’t familiar with. “The dental community is not well educated when it comes to special needs,” says Dahlke. “I definitely recommend this CD because it shows dentists things that they could do specifically as a practitioner that would be helpful for a child with autism.”

Now Letourneau describes Adam as “A very successful little dentist-goer,” and she calls the “My Healthy Smile” CD a great introduction to a first dental experience. “It gives kids control over something in their lives and lets them trust the dentist.”

Monica Wright is Minnesota Parent’s assistant editor.

My Healthy Smile
Available at Fraser.org/products

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