When the mother of Mr 11 took him to the dentist, the answer was always the same – if he didn’t do something to improve his dental hygiene, he risked losing multiple teeth. Mr 11 (who wishes to remain anonymous) has moderate autism which results in a big aversion to oral care. His mother faces a daily battle to get him to brush, let alone floss. As each adult tooth emerged his mother became more and more concerned about the future dental treatments he’d need to undergo. She tried everything to get him to brush regularly but more often than not, the whole exercise devolved into meltdowns. Despite having a helpful, patient and well-meaning family dentist, Mr 11’s dental health showed no sign of improvement.
There is no qualification offered in paediatric dental school for qualifying as a dentist for kids with Autism. While Occupational Therapists can assist with suggestions, dentistry remains a difficult area for parents of kids with sensory issues. Brushing teeth is, a sensory overload. The sharp taste of the toothpaste, the unpleasant feeling of a toothbrush against teeth and gums and even the sounds can be enough to trigger a physical reaction. If you’re a mum to a child with autism, brushing teeth could be the most challenging part of your day – it’s not uncommon.
When Mr 11’s mum saw an ad for a Brisbane dental clinic that offered oral bacterial analysis, she took him along to see how much damage his mouth was sustaining. What she didn’t expect was for Mr 11 to have a “lightbulb moment” about oral health. The dental clinic, Robert Duhig Dental on Brisbane’s northside, is one of the few Australian clinics to offer this service. Robert Duhig Dental is not a specialist dental practice for kids with autism, in fact, the staff were unaware of Mr 11’s challenges when they performed the test.
On arrival, Mr 11 and his mother were welcomed. A dental hygienist explained that three different gasses were largely responsible for “bad breath” and by analysing the gas make up of Mr 11’s mouth, they could determine any underlying dental issues. It’s not all about failing to brush regularly, the test is designed to detect other diseases of the mouth too. Mr 11 was given a dental examination and his mum answered a number of questions about his dental practices. Mr 11 stayed calm and listened. The hygienist then took a sample of his breath by placing a syringe (and explaining it was not a needle, just a syringe) in his mouth and “sampling his breath”.
The sample was then loaded into the analysis machine which generated a report about the state of Mr 11’s mouth.
The report showed in simple graphs of where Mr 11’s dental habits had led to oral bacterial infestations. He was prescribed some pro-biotic sweets to help correct the microbial make up of his mouth and given a flavourless toothpaste designed to strengthen the enamel on his teeth. These little changes made all the difference to Mr 11’s oral care.
Without the harsh flavours of supermarket toothpaste, Mr 11’s sensory aversion to tooth brushing diminished significantly. Seeing the issues explained in black and white, graphic form meant that he was able to clearly understand the problems – he became determined to see reductions in the graphs.
Challenges of treatment
Mr 11 didn’t like the flavour of the oral pro-biotics but took them, as “medicine” according to his proscription. Although the new regime showed great improvement in his brushing practices, there was a period of adjustment. It took time for him to build the skills to perfect his brushing and flossing habits. He essentially needed to relearn oral hygiene from scratch.
Does dental breath testing work for kids with autism?
While not all kids with autism will have the same experience, the combination of neutral flavoured toothpaste and graphic explanation of the issue changed everything for Mr 11 and his mother. Over a two week period, the bacterial make up of his mouth returned to near “normal” levels and continued to improve until reaching perfect health within a month. His dental regime improved dramatically and his regular dentist described herself as “shocked” by the improvements. His mother still buys the flavourless toothpaste for her son, and he still brushes with care. The morning and bed time routines are far more peaceful in Mr 11’s house, which is a wonderful side benefit for parents of kids with autism.
Of course, not all kids with autism will have the same experience. The very nature of autism guarantees that. While there are no autism dentists in Brisbane, choosing a breath test to demonstrate the problem in graphical form may be enough to help your child with autism understand your family dentist better.