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Empowering dental care for adults with autism

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Empowering individuals with autism to take a proactive approach for their dental health is essential (Gabrielle Henderson - Unsplash)

By: Dr Zubaidah Zanul Abidin, Assoc Prof Dr Lim Ghee Seong, Assoc Prof Dr Nosizana Mohd Salleh

There is a growing awareness of the unique challenges that people with autism face when it comes to dental care, especially as they get older. While much attention has been paid to paediatric dental care for children with autism, there is still a significant gap in addressing adults on the spectrum’s dental needs. As a result, many people with autism find it difficult to receive appropriate dental care, leading to potentially severe oral health problems. However, efforts are underway to bridge this gap and provide comprehensive dental treatment for adults with autism.

Poor oral health may result in a series of problem, including challenging in eating and speaking, discomfort in the mouth, disruption in sleep patterns, and reduced self-esteem. These challenges collectively contribute to a detrimental effect on both the individual’s overall health and their quality of life within the autism spectrum.

One of the main obstacles in providing dental care for autistic adults stems from sensory sensitivities and communication issues associated with the disorder. For those on the spectrum, bright lights, loud noises, and unfamiliar feelings can be overwhelming and distressing during a dentist visit. Additionally, difficulties communicating often make it difficult for dental professionals to provide instructions and address concerns effectively.

In addition, behavioural differences often exhibited by autistic adults can make dental appointments extremely challenging. Problems like an inability to sit still, resistance towards medical instruments and looking for sensory stimulation can hinder dentists from conducting thorough exams or providing necessary treatments.

Dental practices and organizations have started rolling out initiatives that create more accommodating environments as they recognize the need for specialised adult autism-friendly dental care. Sensory-friendly waiting rooms containing calming tools such as heavy blankets and noise-cancelling headphones help individuals relax before their appointment.

Furthermore, dentists are being trained on understanding an individual’s unique needs correctly so that effective communication techniques and behaviour management strategies can be developed properly — visual aids, social stories and desensitization exercises can help anxious individuals prepare themselves mentally before their visits.

Another approach that seems promising is collaboration among dentists themselves along with caregivers and individuals who need personalized treatment. By working together closely as a team everyone will gain valuable insights into the individual’s preferences, sensory sensitivities, and communication style — allowing for customized care plans to be designed.

Caregivers play an integral part as well in advocating for the dental health of adults with autism by providing dentists with valuable information about the individual’s oral hygiene habits, dietary preferences and any specific concerns related to their dental care. By offering support and encouragement during their visits, caregivers can go a long way to alleviating anxiety from their loved ones.

Empowering individuals with autism to take a proactive approach when it comes to their own dental health is essential for long-term benefits. Education programs that are tailored specifically towards adults can give them the knowledge and skills needed to maintain good oral hygiene habits and confidently attend dental appointments.

Furthermore, fostering a culture of acceptance and understanding within the dental community ensures that those affected by autism feel accepted and respected during their visit. By promoting inclusivity dentists not only embrace diversity but create an environment where everyone feels comfortable enough to receive top-quality treatment regardless of who they are inside or out.

Despite significant strides in addressing the dental requirements of adults with autism, there remains considerable work ahead. Collaboration and continued effort are essential to enhance their access to and the quality of dental care. Initially, enhancing the oral health of individuals within the autism spectrum may advance slowly, but with perseverance, it can lead to positive outcomes and invaluable benefits.

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The authors are dental lecturers from the prosthodontics discipline, Department of Restorative Dentistry, Faculty of Dentistry, Universiti Malaya.

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