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Taking the Fear Factor Out of a Trip to the Dentist for Autistic Children

July 14, 2011 4:00 PM

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Public Health Minister Michael Matheson has today officially launched a new specialist dental service for children with special needs at Bridgeton Health Centre in Glasgow.

The paediatric dental service at the Centre has been specially redesigned to make it as calming and child friendly as possible to remove the fear factor from a trip to the dentist for children with special needs, particularly those with autism.

Speaking at a special launch event, Minister for Public Health, Michael Matheson, said: “During the past decade there has been an increasing trend in the percentage of five year-olds in Scotland with no obvious dental decay – with the figures for the school year 2009-10 showing that 64 per cent had no obvious decay experience. However we must continue to do more, particularly to accelerate the improvements in more deprived areas and address the barriers to good dental health for children to enable us to improve the future oral health of the nation.

“That’s why I’m delighted to be in Bridgeton, Glasgow to launch this innovative new service. I want to thank everyone involved in this project for bringing it to fruition and for the support of staff and parents for making these changes a reality. Through their efforts we are already seeing great improvements in that trip to the dentist experience for children with special needs in this part of the City.”

The newly redesigned service is the brainchild of two NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde staff - Lyndsay Ovenstone, Senior Dental Officer, and Debbie Connelly, Health Improvement Senior for Oral Health.

Debbie Connelly explained: “Children with autism have difficulty understanding and relating to other people, as well as taking part in everyday family life, and a trip to the dentist can be terrifying for them.

“Children with this condition like routine and find unfamiliar settings very daunting and in a new environment they tend to experience a sensory overload as they cannot process the sheer volume of new information. Not only is this upsetting for them it is also incredibly distressing for their parents too.

“We therefore decided to modify the environment at the Centre to meet the needs of autistic children and offer reassurance to their parents and the results are fantastic.”

A range of simple but effective features for children with autism have now been introduced including innovative new talking books, which the children are introduced to before their first appointment. The books contain pictures of the centre, the staff and the surgery and a narrative is provided for each picture. Families and carers are asked to work through the book in advance of the visit to familiarise the child with the new experience.

There is also a variety of sensory stimuli with light patterns and shapes, a laser projector which produces lights on the ceiling and a DVD player which can play the children’s favourite cartoons to distract and reassure them while they receive treatment. Walls have been repainted in colourful shades and because autistic children do not like clutter, all posters, pictures and items on worktops have been removed from view in clinical areas.
Children with autism particularly like footprints on the floor so these have been purchased and fitted in the surgery as signage.

Debbie explained that the patient journey itself has also been changed. She said: “A questionnaire has been developed which is sent to the parent or carer prior to the visit. The responses to the questionnaire help the team tailor the child’s visit according to their likes, dislikes and communications abilities. So for example if we know in advance what a child’s favourite cartoon character we can arrange in advance to have this playing when the child enters the room, providing instant distraction so the child is relaxed.”

These extremely effective measures have had a major positive impact on the Centre’s autistic patients. One such patient is little Charleigh Johnstone (3) who suffers from autism.

Charleigh’s mum, Stephanie Johnstone (24), said: “I can’t describe the difference the project has made to us. For the first time I can take my daughter to an appointment on my own without the support of another adult because Charliegh is so relaxed there. The talking books in particular are wonderful. By working through the book before Charleigh’s first visit she was prepared for her trip and didn’t find the centre at all daunting. Usually taking her anywhere new is hugely distressing for us all but that’s not the case at the Centre. In fact Charleigh rarely speaks in public but on her last trip to the dentist she spoke and played happily with the staff – it really is absolutely fabulous.”

Dr Ray McAndrew, NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde Associate Medical Director for Oral Health, said: “We are delighted with what has been achieved at the paediatric dental service. Projects like these make a big difference to our patients and their families and are an excellent example of what can be achieved by enthusiastic, person centred staff such as Lyndsay and Debbie who have developed an excellent service to remove barriers to oral care for this important group of patients.”


For more information either telephone 0141 201 4429 or email [email protected]  

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Last Updated: 06 February 2015