Autism and the Dentist

Our family is no stranger to odd, sometimes off-putting comments. With three kids, one of whom was internationally adopted, another diagnosed with autism, and a third who’s seen his fair share of the inside of a hospital room with scary asthma episodes, it seems there’s always someone waiting in the wings, ready to ask one of their head-scratching questions or give me their unsolicited opinion. Whether I get “How much did you pay for her?” in the grocery store or find myself confused by the “You’re so good with him. Are you a teacher?” pat on the back at the playground… it’s not uncommon for me to look around, wondering if I’m being Punk’d by some “adult’s” random thoughts.

But unlike when I was new to this rodeo, I don’t usually get offended by it, that is, if they’re not delivered in a mean-spirited way. But occasionally, I’ll be blindsided by a comment that smacks me in the face and leaves me with a paralyzing fear of the insensitive, unaware world in which my children are being raised.

Yesterday was one of those days. I picked the boys up after school and rushed them over to the dentist for a 2:30 appointment. It just so happened that Thursday at 2:30 is also the time that an aide comes to work with  Jacob, our, bright, affectionate, funny seven year old who also happens to be on the autism spectrum. (I don’t believe in labeling  a kid autistic after I was once given words to live by, “He’s Jacob first, not a diagnosis.”)

Anyway, his tutors, trained in Applied Behavior Analysis, help Jacob in a variety of ways and have given our entire family tools to be a productive, happy family — something I wish was mandatory for all parents of any child. From social skills to daily chores to self care (he now is very aware how his hair looks, which cracks me up), Jacob works ten hours a week to learn important life skills. Since “M” was scheduled during the dentist appointment time, I thought it could be a great opportunity for her to help Jacob work through some of his “task avoidance” difficulties and talk him through those annoying X-Rays, without the emotion and frustration a mom sometimes can’t hide. Which is why, for the first time ever, I even mentioned that Jacob was on the spectrum, something that never seemed necessary during previous appointments.

All went better than expected and both boys got a great dental report. But as the pediatric dentist was finishing up with Jacob, she said, “I was going to do the fluoride next. Do you think he’ll tolerate that?”

It seemed a little odd to me how she was talked to me like he wasn’t in the room, even though she was completely over his face with her mouth in his hands. But he was totally distracted by the movie blasting from the ceiling-mounted TV and wasn’t exactly chatty lying down with tools in his mouth, so I went with it.

“Well, let’s give it a shot,” I said, feeling positive that it would all be totally fine. I couldn’t be positive but I was pretty sure he had done it before, information I assumed was in his chart.

“Okay, I didn’t know if he would tolerate,” she responded and awkwardly danced around the topic as she mentioned she’s had other kids like him. “I know they’re sensitive to touch.”

Suddenly, my whole body tensed up.

They? Who’s they?

Ohhhhhhhh, THEY! You mean like kids with autism… THEY. I get it.

Now I’m not sure if I’m feeling angry or confused but I can feel my eyes welling up. If there’s one place I expect my child to be treated like a human being and not lumped into a stereotype with the millions of others with the same diagnosis, it’s with a medical doctor who specializes in care for children. I understand that she was trying to within potential limitations but there was definitely another way to say it.

A wave of sadness felt like a tsunami, overtaking the wave of anger I had felt. I know that a dentist’s office can be a factory of constantly-moving new faces. Please, my dentist wouldn’t know me if I tied him up with the floss I don’t use nearly enough. But every patient, child or adult, special needs or not, deserves to be treated as an individual. Would she use “they” to someone of a specific race, religion, age or sexual orientation? I doubt it.

After talking about it with a friend, I have decided to take her advice and address the topic directly with the dentist, respectfully making her aware of how her words — while not intentionally hurtful — can affect a family. Because while I know that I can’t change the attitude of the world around us, there is a time and place to stand up, protect my children and use my voice to make a difference for others.

Leave your opinions, experiences and weird questions in the comments!

3 thoughts on “Autism and the Dentist

  1. People just don’t know. And they will continue to not know unless we tell them, unfortunately. Definitely let her know that there was another way to say it….take the opportunity to educate someone 😉

    I’ve always been very up front with people regarding Reece’s autism; and typically it’s fine. Every now and then I have to remind someone that he is capable of speaking for himself and that just as ALL children are different, so are all children on the spectrum. Seems like common sense to us, but people really just don’t get it…..even doctors and medical professionals. I literally cringe when a doctor uses the word “autistic” to describe my kids. Makes me wanna punch them.

  2. Argh! I just found this while looking for resources on tolerating the dentist for a kid with sensory issues. I love your blog! We’ve had some similar experiences with medical professionals — including those who work primarily with kids with disabilities — just totally not getting it. When we all went to the dentist together recently, the dentist and staff kept referring to “the baby” (who doesn’t present as anywhere near age-appropriate especially when anxious, but does understand what the word “baby” means and is almost 4).

    We also had a developmental pediatrician, a few months after our child was adopted at age 2, try and take our child into the testing room alone without running it by us and without explaining to our child what was going on or why. She allowed us to come in when we explained that we don’t leave our child with anyone yet, but wasn’t apologetic and it didn’t seem to click with her that you obviously don’t take a recently moved child away from the new parents unless absolutely necessary. After the appointment she praised our child for doing so well and offered a hug, and was really offended when we jumped in like, wait, no, our rule is no hugging anyone but parents. She actually asked us why. And still was confused and offended when we’re like, “um, spent two years in foster care, then was suddenly given to strangers and told we’re her parents now and to trust us. We have to teach her what her boundaries with people should be.” Plus, really, who hugs any kid after one testing session?

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