This month’s featured article from ASAT is by the Associate Director of the New Haven Learning Centre in Toronto Jennifer Hieminga, MEd, BCBA, on several research-based strategies for parents to encourage cooperative behavior in their children with ASD during routine dental visits. To learn more about ASAT, please visit their website at www.asatonline.org. You can also sign up for ASAT’s free newsletter, Science in Autism Treatment, and like them on Facebook!
My daughter with autism was very resistant during her first dental visit. Are there any steps we can take to help her tolerate a dental exam? We were actively involved in her home-based early intervention program for the last two years and have a working knowledge of ABA. Our daughter’s program is overseen by a board certified behavior analyst.
Answered by Jennifer Hieminga, MEd, BCBA
Associate Director, New Haven Learning Centre, Toronto, Canada
For many individuals with autism, routine appointments such as medical, dental and haircuts can be extremely difficult to tolerate. There are many factors that may contribute to this intolerance such as novel environments, novel adults, novel or aversive sounds, bright lights, foreign tastes, painful sensations, sitting for long periods of time and physical touch. As a result, many children with autism display noncompliant or avoidant behavior in response to these stimuli or events. Fortunately, there is a growing body of research published in peer-reviewed journals describing effective strategies to target dental toleration. Several different behavior interventions and programs have been used to increase an individual’s tolerance or proximity to an avoided stimulus or event, such as a dental exam. For example, the use of escape and reward contingent on cooperative dental behavior was shown to be effective for some individuals (Allen & Stokes, 1987; Allen, Loiben, Aleen, & Stanley, 1992). Non-contingent escape, in which the child was given periodic breaks during the dental exam, was also effective in decreasing disruptive behavior (O’Callaghan, Allen, Powell, & Salama, 2006). Other strategies such as using distraction and rewards (Stark et al., 1989), providing opportunities for the individuals to participate in the dental exam (Conyers et al., 2004), and employing systematic desensitization procedures (Altabet, 2002) have been shown to be effective. Most recently, Cuvo, Godard, Huckfeldt, and Demattei (2010) used a combination of interventions including, priming DVD, escape extinction, stimulus fading, distracting stimuli, etc. The board certified behavior analyst overseeing your daughter’s program is likely familiar with these procedures.
Clinical practice suggests that dental exams can indeed be modified to teach children with autism component skills related to dental exams (Blitz & Britton, 2010). However, a major challenge to implementing such skill-acquisition programs is the reduced opportunities to actually target these skills. One highly effective way to address this is to create a mock dental exam scenario in your home, as it provides opportunities to teach and practice the skills consistently and frequently. These scenarios should emulate, as best as possible, an actual dental office (e.g., similar tools, sounds, light, reclining chair), making it easier for the skills mastered in the mock teaching scenario to generalize to the dental office exam later on.
Developing a “Cooperates with a Dental Exam” Program
Following is a detailed example of the components involved with creating and implementing a “Cooperates with a dental exam” program.
- Speak to your family dentist to identify all the components of the exam with which your child will be required to participate.
- Based on the dentist’s input, develop a detailed task analysis outlining each step of the dental exam. See sample task analysis provided in the next section below.
- Collect necessary materials required for the exam. Many of these items may be obtained or borrowed from your dentist and may include:
• Reclining chair (e.g., lazy boy)
• Dental bib
• Flouride foam dental plates
• Electric Toothbrush with round head (to ensure polishing)
• Dental mask
• Dental mirror
• Plastic gloves
• X-ray plates
• Flossing pics
- Take baseline data to determine your child’s ability to cooperate with each step of the exam and to identify skills that need to be taught. For example, baseline data may indicate there is a skill deficit with tolerating novel noises at the dentist and not with the exam itself. In this situation, a specific program for tolerating novel sounds found in the dental office should be introduced. It cannot be overstated that an intervention to address this area would need to be individualized. However, for the purpose of this reply it will be assumed that your daughter presents with difficulty in all, or the majority of the steps involved in a dental exam.
- Lastly, before starting the program, establish highly-potent reinforcers which your daughter will access for correctly responding within this program, and collect the items that you will need to teach this skill.