Newsline Volume 32, Number 4

Assistive Technology Corner...

(AT) Goes to the Dentist

By Randi Sargent

Visual aid for dentist appointmentMany children with special needs are anxious about routine visits to the dentist's office. For children with autism and sensory issues, anxiety can be heightened by their lack of experience or understanding, as well as by the stressful bright lights and buzzing noises. If you have one of these kids, read this short guide about some low-tech assistive technology aids you can use to make your child's next dental visit as painless as possible.

1) Preparing for Your Visit: In advance of the appointment, talk with your dentist and/or hygienist to let them know about your child's challenges and any concerns you have. Print out the excellent Dental Visit Guide prepared by Autism Speaks (see resources box below), and share it with them. When scheduling the appointment, ask if they have a quiet time of day when they can book a longer visit. Some offices reserve slots at the beginning or end of the day for patients who require longer appointments.

Visual schedules are a low tech AT aid that can help alleviate anxiety. Download a free visual schedule of a dental appointment (see resources box below), or make one using pictures or symbols to let your child know what to expect during his or her visit. If necessary, ask for photos so you can familiarize your child with the office and personnel. If these are unavailable, bring your camera and take some photos yourself. For some children, short introductory visits may be necessary to get them comfortable with the new setting.

2) Review the Procedure: In the days prior to your child's appointment, review books, social stories, videos and/or even apps (see resources box below) that show children going to the dentist and even some of the equipment that will be used. Review the visual schedule to help him or her understand what will happen during the appointment.

3) Teach and Practice: Some children may need to be taught what behavior is appropriate in a dentist's office. Teach and practice how to wait patiently, sit still, open wide, move the tongue around, and spit into a sink. Discuss relaxation and distraction techniques your child can use if he or she is nervous such as closing eyes, holding hands, listening to music with head phones, humming a favorite song, or watching a favorite app or video. Let your child know that he or she has some control of the activity by showing how to communicate "wait/stop," "need a break," and "ok" using visual signals.

4) Review on the Day: On the day of the appointment, bring a bag of favorite toys, books, or electronic games to help your child wait quietly for his or her turn. Review the visual schedule he or she has already seen. Some kids benefit from checking off each activity as it occurs throughout the appointment. Remind your child of the relaxation and distraction techniques you've discussed and/or practiced. Consider bringing a visual timer, such as a Time Timer (see resources box below), to help your child see how much time is left until he or she is finished.

5) Reward a Job Well Done: Some children do best when they get praise and/or a reward for each step that is completed successfully, so give it! Reinforce the concept of First-Then by rewarding them for a job well done. Your dental office may have stickers and small toys that your child may enjoy choosing. If not, use whatever reward motivates your child's best behavior.

Remember that throughout the entire process, collaboration with the dentist's office is crucial. Keep an open dialogue and share any information about your child that you think might be helpful. Suggest some of the resources below to your dental care provider and encourage them to make visual supports available for their younger patients and patients with special needs. Finally, practice good dental hygiene between appointments to keep kids (and parents) healthy and happy!


Autism Speaks Family Services Dental Guide and Resource Guide

Dental Visit Visual Schedule - free PDF download

Dentist Office Visual Support Kit

Dental Visit Social Story:

Going to the Dentist (for younger kids) free PowerPoint download

HANDS in Autism Tool Kit for Medical Professionals

Off We Go -Going to the Dentist iOS app from Kiwi Media (on iTunes

My Health Smile app $1.99

Picking a Dentist for Your Child with Special Needs from

Time Timers available

YouTube Videos - search for CullenABCs,, NLM Family Foundation, DadsLab


Randi Sargent is a parent of a son with special needs and founder of, a resource for communication supports for children and adults with severe speech disorders and autism. She is a board member at the Federation for Children with Special Needs and the Mass Rehab Commissions' AT Advisory Council.