Researchers aim to ease children's dental anxiety

Los Angeles – In attempting to tackle children's anxiety about visiting the dentist, a team of researchers at the University of Southern California studied how kids responded in a dental office with a welcoming environment.

The research, published in May in an article in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, focused on children with autism spectrum disorders and some typically developing children and found that both exhibited decreased anxiety and reported lower pain and sensory discomfort in the modified environment.

In the study, 44 Children's Hospital Los Angeles patients — half with autism and half "typically developing" — underwent two professional dental cleanings. One cleaning took place in a regular dental environment while the other was in a sensory adapted dental setting.

In the latter location, practitioners used a seat cover that looked like a gigantic butterfly whose wings wrapped around the child and provided a comforting, deep-pressure hug instead of using traditional means to secure the child in the dental chair. Researchers also turned off overhead office lights and headlamps, projecting slow-moving visual effects onto the ceiling and playing soothing music.

Researchers say they hope the findings can eventually represent a cost savings to the health care system with fewer insurance reimbursements paid to dental offices and for additional staff members and general anesthesia often necessary for children with autism.

"One of our long-term goals with this study is to help dentists develop protocols for their own dental clinics to see how sensory components are contributing to behavioral issues," said Sharon Cermak, Ed.D., the study's lead author.

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