Seven Keys to Keep You Smiling Through Dental Visits

These tips will help children with special needs – and their parents – feel more comfortable in the dentist’s chair.

by Elaine Hall

Seven Keys to Keep You Smiling Through Dental VisitsI’m scared of dentists. Well, not the dentist himself (my brother is a dentist in San Diego), but I am scared of sitting in that chair, opening my mouth and not knowing what pain I am about to endure. Just thinking about the sound of the drill, the feel of the needle and the look of those shiny tools can keep me awake many nights before my appointment. Imagine how much more intense this experience is for children who have autism, ADHD, Cerebral palsy and other sensitivities!

Our first few years taking our son to the dentist were not without challenge. We had to hold him tightly in our laps and sedate him, and would often leave traumatized. We began using these seven keys, and things go very well now!

Key One: Be relaxed. We are the barometers for our kids’ internal lives. If you are OK with this experience, your child will be more relaxed. As you can imagine, I fail miserably with this, so I always bring a friend or coach who doesn’t share my angst about dental syringes. Most important, find a dentist who stays calm and doesn’t rush. Eileen Roseman, a special education teacher in the L.A. Unified School District, recommends Judith Pabst, DDS, in West Hills ( as “kind, gentle, and extremely patient.” Rosemen says even the office staff is calming and reassuring. The Autism Speaks website has a searchable list of resources, including dentists:

Key Two: Be non-judgmental and acknowledge your child’s fears. Instead of saying, “Don’t be afraid,” or “There’s nothing to worry about,” acknowledge your child’s concerns and help him or her understand what is going on. My brother, Bob Goldenberg, DDS, says he is scrupulously honest with all of his patients, and doesn’t treat a child with a disability any differently than anyone else. He finds ways to communicate with his patients, accepts what goes on for them, and treats them accordingly. If a child is too upset, or the dental procedure might cause too much pain, he will suggest sedation.

Key Three: Be aware of your child’s sensory triggers. Even a waiting room can be a turn-off to our kids. San Fernando Valley mom Navah Paskowitz says her son Edwin’s first dental experience involved a loud waiting room, with lots of children playing in a closed environment. The overstimulation caused him to have a meltdown even before they met the dentist. She now takes Edwin to Bruce Vafa, DDS, of Beverly Hills (, who has a quiet area available and is completely tuned in to her son’s special needs.

Key 4: Be open to your child’s interests and to what brings them comfort. Parent advocate Lori Guthrie says her son Matt had a more successful dental experience when he got to listen to his favorite musical artist, Jimmy Buffet, on headphones and was placed near a window so he could look outside at an interesting scene while the dentist worked on his teeth.

Key 5: Include your child in all aspects of dental hygiene and awareness and begin treatment at a very early age. The American Dental Association recommends all children have their first dental visit by their first birthday. We showed our son photos and video of bad, ugly teeth and gums to help him understand the importance of brushing and flossing. We model proper technique and help him break brushing into manageable steps, practice each step, then put it all together. He gets to choose which toothpaste he wants to use (we tried several until he found the exact taste and smell he preferred). We taught him to set a timer so that he knows how long to brush his teeth. Each morning, he comes in and smiles triumphantly at how well and long he brushed his teeth

Key Six: Practice going to the dentist before you ever go. Read about dentists, look at equipment online and watch videos. Pediatric dentist Bernard Gross, DDS, of Santa Monica, believes in creating a positive relationship and shared positive experiences before doing dental work on his clients. Our first appointment took place in his lobby. We looked at the fish tank, read magazines, then went home. At the next appointment, we walked with Dr. Gross into the middle of the dental clinic, examined the chairs, and went home. For the third appointment, we sat in the dental chair for about 30 seconds, Dr. Gross looked in my son’s mouth, and we left. Finally, on the fourth visit, it was time for Dr. Gross to clean my son’s teeth. He had created a positive, trusting relationship and my son opened his mouth without difficulty. These memories carried over into my son’s adult life. The first time he went to see Santa Monica dentist Kari Sakuri, DDS, he walked confidently to the dentist’s chair, opened his mouth when asked, and when she was finished, he signed “more, more, more!”

Key 7: Celebrate! During your child’s visit, focus on a toy or event they will receive afterward. When you are through, let them know how proud you are of their courage. Make sure they take the reward most dental offices offer after a visit. My son knew that I was more traumatized than he was. Instead of choosing a toy for himself, he chose a little doll and gave it to me!!! He has overcome his fear of the dentist. Hopefully, one day, I’ll conquer mine.


Elaine Hall is a motivational speaker, inclusion activist, and founder of The Miracle Project Theater Program and the Rehearsing for Life ™ Social Skills Program. She was profiled in the HBO film, AUTISM: The Musical, is the author of “Now I See the Moon” and co-author of “Seven Keys to Unlock Autism: Making Miracles in the Classroom.” Elaine produced and starred in the DVD series Unlocking Autism: Seven Keys to Being Miracle Minded for medical professionals. Elaine consults with parents, professionals, religious and medical groups, and camps to foster inclusion.

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