No One Likes the Dentist, But Some Kids Have Special Needs

Two of my sons are more reactive to life than the other two. The older has an official diagnosis of ADD/ADHD and the younger has ADD and OCD. Both also, whether related to those conditions or separate, have a few autistic tendencies.

How do I know? I’ve talked to their pediatrician about it. I’ve talked to the special education coordinators at their school. I have also read other parents’ experiences online. Two, in particular, are Robyn over at Autism in Our Nest and Gary at Bereaved and Being a Single Parent.

They write about events in their family’s lives in an open and honest way. Robyn has shared how her autistic son and daughter react to what some people consider ‘normal’ life situations. Gary has shared his son’s stresses with ‘normal’ challenges, especially at school. Both have been a wonderful source of information, especially since many websites that list common symptoms only list them -they don’t talk about how, exactly, that symptom plays out somewhere like the dentist office.

Ah, the dentist. No one likes the dentist.

Unfortunately, the scariness of fillings and cleanings and lying back with your mouth open is all compounded with the anxieties of kids with more special needs. Kids like my sons. Kids like my younger son, in particular.

The first time he needed cavities filled (six!!), he panicked. He fixated. He refused to open his mouth and thrashed about and would not even do it for all the things I kept promising him he could have.

(You wait, non-parents: when an entire dentist’s office is getting more and more frustrated, just wait and see what size of free ice cream cone you will offer.)

boy-check-up-dental-care-52527 (1)

Because of that, my son’s first experience with fillings was one he did not experience. We paid extra for a pediatric anesthesiologist to sedate him. (By the way, the guy who came and did that for us recommends it as a great career. He goes around from office to office and only has to monitor relatively healthy children instead of potentially obese adult patients in a high-stress hospital environment.)

But, I digress.

The next time my son needed dental work I was naturally anxious. We couldn’t afford to put him under every time, nor did I think that was good for him. Fortunately, he did much better. He loved laughing gas. He loved the ice cream sundae afterwards.

Okay, okay: I bought him a popsicle.

Fast-forward to just last week. We needed to go to a new dentist. I chose one my neighbors had recommended as good for working with special needs kids. Despite doing well the last time we’d had fillings, I knew my son needed patient explanations. He needed reassurance and friendliness. If he were rushed into anything impatiently he would clam up and refuse to come back.

…And so I was somewhat fuming after the appointment.

Why? My son needs fillings. Again. The dentist wanted me to consider a “liquid relaxant” just before the next appointment. I refused. The dentist cited that my son had been “somewhat difficult” during the cleaning. He also used the word “frustrating” and that he was “not comfortable trying” the fillings without the recommended sedative.

I am morally against giving children a liquid sedativeI have a panic attack when I take Valium, and personally witnessed a young girl pee herself in the waiting room of yet another dentist’s office when my oldest son went for his first time. The poor girl’s mom was mortified and shocked. She told me her daughter was acting drunk and she didn’t know that was what the sedative could do.

Yes, I understand the position of the dentist. Yes, I know he can refuse service to anyone.


But no, he cannot phrase things so that I feel pressured. No, if he’s that good at working with special needs, he cannot tell my son that he’s “difficult,” when they didn’t even tell him they were going to touch his sensitive tooth with a poky instrument.

I’m not an expert like Robyn or Gary, yet I know some things that should have been done:

  1. Extra time! Spend just a few extra seconds explaining things till he is comfortable to proceed.
  2. Sensory: provide sunglasses for the bright overhead light, and headphones so he can hear the movie and tune out the other noises.
  3. Knowledge: let him handle the tools (when possible) and explain what they do before sticking them in his mouth.
  4. Explanation: tell him what the sucker does and how it feels. Say, “This is a toothbrush. Here, give me your finger and feel how it spins around.”
  5. Provide a way to communicate and LISTEN: give him a sign to lift up when he wants to talk. Stop all activity until you address his needs.
  6. Sensory in terms of tastes and textures: provide a variety of flavors for toothpaste and allow him to taste a bit of one.
  7. Fun: have a friendly and engaging office, maybe with toys or a movie.
  8. Love!! Everything you say needs to be friendly and relaxed, not terse and impatient.

Out of all of those options, they did about two-and-a-half. In terms of a dental scorecard for working with special needs, that leaves them with 31%. Last time I checked, that is not high enough to pass dental school.

Given that, one might think I am ready to write this place off. I’m not. Everyone is human, even dentists. Instead, I plan to meet with the dentist and bring this list along. I plan to see if they can change and adjust. After that, if they are still not willing to work with us, we most definitely will look elsewhere.

…Which is another thing I’ve learned as a mother of children with special needs: I need to be their advocate. I need to speak up for them and tell their caregivers what’s what. Otherwise, we’re all set up for failure; and no one wants that.


Photo Credit:
Image by renatalferro from Pixabay


©2019 Chelsea Owens

16 thoughts on “No One Likes the Dentist, But Some Kids Have Special Needs

      1. Right?!! My son , ADHD , had trouble at the orthodontist. The man was literally past retirement age and he was a grumpy A-hole! He refused to see my son . I was so mad. Hang in there! With lots of love and teaching them skills to deal with the various difficulties, our kids can have perfectly good lives!

        Liked by 1 person

  1. This is a top post. I think you nailed the all too frequent frustrations with the system. That treatment and language is unacceptable. Why didn’t the professional ask your opinion first. I remember we had an optician appointment and we went for someone who claimed to be an expert with autism. In the end that professional was appalling and talked down to our son. In the NHS the option exists to refer kids with ADHD and Autism to specialist dental services. We haven’t as our dental practice is good and is very proactive. The key to any good health service is dialogue and flexibility. Work with the kid and parents to tailor the treatment around what is best suited for the kid. Unfortunately you do often have to fight to have this process started initially or shop around for a professional who works that way. Thank you for your kind words. I learn so so much from Robyn and her take on autism, plus much from you on being s great parent.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m sorry about the optician experience. I’ve had bad experiences with pediatric specialists at all levels, and even teachers.

      Why do some of these people go into professions if they do not have patience??

      And I meant every word!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I loved the way you wrote about this. The dentist is a miserable experience for our #1 too. I’ve got a dentist recommendation for you if you want another one. Two actually. Being an advocate for your children is no easy task. May the force be with you.

    Liked by 1 person

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