by Dr. Greg Grillo DDS (dentably.com)
Going to the dentist can be a scary and stressful experience for any child, which is only further exacerbated by one with autism. Autistic children are often triggered by many of the stimuli in a dental office, and as a dentist I know firsthand the difficulties autistic children and their parents face when visiting the dentist.
I’ve worked hard to help parents with autistic children and have found that utilizing planned activity training protocols helps make the transition as easy as possible. Planned activity training helps prevent problems before they happen and can engage the child and make the dentist experience positive for everyone
What Is Planned Activity Training?
Planned activities training (PAT) is a process that focuses on positive reinforcement and pre-planning to make activities more manageable for children with autism. The combination of reinforcement and planning gives children a sense of control and can make the whole process much easier and more enjoyable. It also incorporates open lines of communication before and during the activity. This communication is very important to keep the child engaged, and I always make sure to walk through each step with the patient.
The key steps to planned activities training are as follows:
- Prepare in advance
- Explain the activity
- Explain the rules for the activity
- Explain the rewards and consequences Give choices
- Talk about what you are doing
- Be child-friendly
- Ignore minor misbehavior
- Tell your child how he or she did
- Give rewards for good behavior
The big ideas are to plan, communicate openly throughout the activity, and follow up with positive reinforcement and rewards upon completion. These ideas easily extend to the dental office, and by applying them you can make the trip much more pleasant for everyone involved.
One of the key components of planned activity training is using positive reinforcements. All children love to be rewarded for doing good, and this promise of reward can go a long way in encouraging good behavior. By having a clear reward in mind, this can help the child focus on the end and tolerate a bit of uncomfortableness in order to receive such a reward.
On the flip side, they also need to understand the negative consequences for not going to the dentist. This doesn’t need to be done in a nasty or mean manner, but they should know that the dentist is a necessity for everyone and not going (or misbehaving during) can have harmful effects on their teeth.
The next key point is involving your child in the planning and preparation part of that process. Giving your child a clear understanding of what going to the dentist entails, and what sorts of things to expect, can help them feel comfortable and confident when confronted with those things. This is especially important for a dentist visit as things like drills and cleaning tools can be negative stimuli that are not often encountered on normal days.
Explaining what these tools do beforehand can help them feel comfortable when encountering them later. By helping them understand this, and planning out the dental visit process, you give them better control over the situation and more understanding about what is going on around them.
Communication Is Key
A big part of planned activity training is communication between you and your child, but it also includes the dentist as well. A well-versed dentist will take time with your child and explain to them the different tools they’re using and why they’re using them. This explanation is important, and helps your child understand the procedure. Your dentist might also start with a brief rundown of the entire process, that way your child knows what to expect, and knows when they’re almost done.
This is also a good place to introduce a tangible reward for your child. For example, many dental offices will have some sort of “prize box” with small toys that the child can pick from after a visit. The promise to receive a toy can make what would otherwise be a bad experience into something to look forward to. By offering rewards for good behavior you add a high incentive for your child to follow all the rules.
Plan for Success
Planning for a dental visit with a child that has autism can be stressful, but with the right process it can be a success. Planned activity training is a great process that breaks down the key ideas that can help your child understand the visit and give them the encouragement to stay on their best behavior. I find it fantastic to help autistic children understand the dental process and keeps them engaged and calm for the entire visit.
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