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.
- 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.).
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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