Encouraging a child to brush their teeth can be a challenge for any parent. This can be especially true for a child who struggles with sensory processing. Below are some tips to help establish healthy brushing habits for children on the Autism Spectrum.

  1. Vocabulary is a building block to following directions and creating independence with brushing. Teach children the names of items (toothbrush, toothpaste, cup, water, etc.) along with body parts (teeth, tongue, gums, etc.).
  2. Visual cues promote independence. Explore cartoons or short video clips that review the process. Post photos outlining steps in the bathroom. For an older child a diagram of the mouth outlining the tongue sides, tops, and cheek sides of the teeth is helpful, with a plan for moving from one section of the mouth to the next.
  3. Toothbrush type is important. Use very soft bristles or a silicone brush. Infant brushes may be a good choice to assist in building up comfort level. Some children like the sensation provided by a spin toothbrush. A three-sided toothbrush is a good option for children who need a once-and-done brushing experience.
  4. Toothpaste flavor can make or break the experience. Try different flavors to find one each child tolerates or try unflavored toothpaste. If foaming creates sensory discomfort try non-foaming toothpaste.
  5. Routines help children feel in control of a task. Make brushing part of the morning and bedtime routine. Clearly outline tooth brushing with a timer, cute song (2 min) or an electronic toothbrush that measures brushing time and provides a clear stopping point.
  6. Stages of progression help children master each before moving to the next. Consider starting with toothbrush only, introducing toothpaste at end. Also consider brushing only a few teeth at a time, progressively adding teeth to the routine.
  7. Brush together! Brushing together helps reduce anxiety. Take turns brushing each other’s teeth. (Child brushes mom’s teeth with mom’s toothbrush; mom brushes child’s teeth with child’s toothbrush.)

Dr. Anas Hakimeh