Dental Care for Adults on the Autism Spectrum

For many people, visiting the dentist for regular oral care can be an anxiety-inducing experience. For adults with autism, a dental appointment can be even more daunting.

Penn Dental Medicine’s Care Center for Persons with Disabilities is proud to be a local dentist for autistic adults. Here, patients can expect compassionate, experienced care that caters to their needs, wherever they fall on the spectrum.

How Do Autism Spectrum Disorders Affect Oral Health?

Autism refers to several developmental disorders that affect communication, social interaction, and behavior. No two people are exactly alike, which is why the condition is referred to as autism spectrum disorders, which reflects individual experiences.

Dentists at Penn Dental Medicine care for a patient.

Although the disorders do not cause any difference in individuals’ teeth or oral health themselves, they can contribute to habits or behaviors that lead to oral health problems. Research indicates that people with developmental disorders have a higher burden of dental disease, in large part because of the limited availability of dentists for autistic adults.

Another significant barrier to dental care for adults with autism spectrum disorder is the extreme anxiety that seeing a provider — even a dentist for autistic adults with the training to care for persons with disabilities — can cause. Sometimes dental practices are not set up to accommodate the needs of these patients, who may be more sensitive to light, sound, and pain, and instead turn to anesthesia to help reduce anxiety during dental treatments. This is not always ideal, for various reasons ranging from cost to the potential for side effects.

Adults with developmental disorders are also at risk for oral health issues due to aspects of their condition. For example, poor oral hygiene is common. Autism spectrum disorders can make brushing and flossing uncomfortable and overwhelming, so it’s not done as thoroughly or often as it should be. Patients may also put off appointments for professional cleanings and exams, so potential issues aren’t always caught and treated until they become a serious problem.

Other common dental concerns for adults with special needs include:

The entrance to the Personalized Care Suite for Persons with Disabilities at Penn Dental Medicine

  • Cavities. There is evidence that persons with autism are more likely to have untreated tooth decay due to their oral hygiene habits, dietary preferences, and less consistent dental care. These factors also contribute to a significant increase in cases of untreated gum disease.
  • Bruxism (tooth grinding). This is very common, affecting as many as 25% of adults with autism. Tooth grinding weakens teeth, increasing the risk of worn enamel, cracks, and broken teeth.
  • Self-injury. Some people with autism spectrum disorders are prone to self-injury, including chewing or eating things they shouldn’t, picking at their lips and gums, biting their lips or the inside of their mouth, and tongue thrusting.
  • Limited diet. Strict food preferences are common among adults with autism, which can contribute to oral health issues. For example, many people have limited preferences, eliminating full food groups, or will only eat food prepared in a particular way (pureed, steams, etc.) which can affect their teeth.

Because these issues are so prevalent, a dentist for autistic adults working in an environment that supports their needs is a crucial element in providing comprehensive care.

Improving Dental Care for Adults on the Autism Spectrum

Several elements of the typical dental visit can be especially uncomfortable for an adult on the autism spectrum. While almost no one especially enjoys lying in the chair under the bright lights, for someone with an autism spectrum disorder, even a routine exam can be an overwhelming, and even painful, experience.

Some of the issues that occur during a dental visit that can be problematic include:

  • Hypersensitivity to light, noise, sounds, and smells.
  • Extreme proximity of the dentist, which can be challenging for an individual who struggles with social interactions, claustrophobia, or intrusions on personal space.
  • Communication challenges. A patient may not be able to communicate discomfort or concerns effectively.
  • Routine disruptions. Many people with autism spectrum disorders rely on strict routines, and a dental appointment can create challenges to that.
  • Previous experiences. Patients who have had unpleasant or stressful experiences in the past may be reluctant to see a dentist again.

The Personalized Care Suite at the Penn Dental Medicine Center for Persons with Disabilities is designed to meet the needs of adults with special needs, including autism spectrum disorders. The Care Center uses the most advanced methods and technologies to make dental care as comfortable as possible. This includes:

  • Pre-appointment phone consultations. Patients and/or their caregivers can discuss their needs with a Care Center oral health navigator ahead of the appointment to ensure that their needs are met and they feel comfortable.
  • Quiet rooms to help reduce overstimulation. The rooms are equipped with direct entrances that allow patients to skip the main reception and waiting area, low lighting, and padded floors where patients and providers can sit comfortably.
  • Private rooms equipped with adjustable lighting and blackout shades for patients.
  • Nitrous oxide, an inhaled sedative that can help patients relax, is available in all treatment rooms.
  • Specially trained dentists for autistic adults. The care team includes student dentists, dental hygienists, registered dieticians, and dental faculty members skilled at delivering care to patients with all types of needs.

Make an Appointment at the Care Center for Persons with Disabilities Today

Everyone deserves good oral health, and the Care Center for Persons with Disabilities makes it possible for adults with autism spectrum disorders to feel comfortable and see the dentist without excessive anxiety. Click here to learn more about the Care Center and what to expect, and make an appointment today.

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