Tooth brushing is a vital skill that all children need to learn – and that all children can struggle with. It’s strange to feel a bristly brush inside your mouth! Children with autism, especially, can feel challenged by learning how to care for their teeth and gums. But by understanding your child’s unique needs and strengths, and by implementing strategies like a reinforcement system or prompt fading, you can help your child develop the tools they need to care for their dental hygiene.
When To Start Teaching Dental Hygiene Skills
A big part of your child learning teeth brushing skills is them becoming familiar with the feeling of a toothbrush in their mouth. It can be a strange sensation, especially for children with autism. Helping your child feel comfortable with – or at least, tolerating – a toothbrush or floss in their mouth is a key first step to teaching dental hygiene skills. Given this, it’s best to start brushing your child’s teeth as soon as their first tooth comes in, and then work with your child’s strengths and challenges as they age to determine when they should take over brushing their own teeth. Some children might start brushing their own teeth as early as 3 or 4, while others may be closer to 6 years old before gaining independence on teeth brushing. This tends to depend on your child’s fine motor skills – for example, if your child struggles with writing or tying their shoes, then teeth brushing may not yet be an appropriate skill for them to learn. However, once your child has the prerequisite fine motor skills, it’s a great time to start teaching independent tooth brushing.
3 Steps For Teaching Teeth Brushing To Children with Autism
A good first step for teaching your child independent teeth brushing is to use task analysis, accompanying reinforcement system, and prompt fading.
A task analysis simply takes a given behavior – in this case, teeth brushing – and breaks it down into smaller parts: water on, toothpaste on brush, spit out toothpaste, etc. By breaking down a behavior in this way, you can avoid overwhelming your child and can ensure they understand each smaller part that goes into the complete behavior.
The accompanying reinforcement system is something your child would be excited to work toward and challenge themselves for, like a token for completing each step or a special activity for after teeth brushing.
Once your child feels confident in this task analysis system, it’s important to move into prompt fading: systemically becoming less and less involved in the steps of teaching a skill. For example, if you have been turning the water off for your child, you would have your child turn on the water themselves by pointing to the faucet. In this way, you can ensure your child has appropriate support as they learn to brush their teeth while slowly guiding them toward independent brushing.
Helpful Learning Strategies
Each child learns differently, so it might be helpful to implement a range of strategies to help your child with autism learn teeth brushing skills. For example, visuals can be a helpful way to support your child as they become more independent with their dental hygiene. You might print out the task analysis – the breakdown of teeth brushing steps – and tape it to the mirror. This strategy can help create independence, and can also help remind your child of your expectations. In addition to making use of visuals, modeling is another great way to teach your child with autism teeth brushing. Modeling involves you brushing your teeth alongside your child, or making it a task your child can do with a sibling. Not only can modeling address any fear your child may have around teeth brushing, but it also adds a positive, social aspect to the activity.
Common Teeth Brushing Challenges
Consistency is key when developing a dental hygiene routine. Whether it takes five days or two months for your child with autism to learn independent teeth brushing, it’s important that you both follow through with your chosen teaching method. This can feel challenging on days that you feel the need to rush and “do it yourself.” However, staying consistent and sticking to a teeth brushing routine will help your child develop these skills on their own time. And while teeth brushing can be frustrating and time consuming, it’s important to stay positive. By encouraging an upbeat mindset around teeth brushing – even in challenging moments – you can help frame teeth brushing as something positive for your child.
Lean On Your Team
When it comes to teaching your child hygiene skills like teeth brushing, remember that you’re not alone. Your child’s family, friends, and autism behavior therapists can support you as you teach teeth brushing and help your child as they generalize this skill. Generalization training involves your child practicing this skill in different environments or with different people. For example, you might plan a day trip to grandma’s simply to have your child with autism brush their teeth there. And at Trumpet, we can assess your child’s dental hygiene behaviors and help develop a plan based on your child’s specific needs and challenges. Our Board Certified Behavior Analysts are skilled at identifying barriers to developing a skill, and can help teach hygiene skills through ABA therapy. For example, your child might have an aversion to the feeling of bristles on their gums, or they might have had a cavity and are now afraid to brush their own teeth. We recognize that each child’s needs are different, and at Trumpet, we’ll develop a treatment and skill development plan to help them learn independent teeth brushing.
Final Thoughts: Teaching Dental Hygiene
Teaching new skills can be challenging for you and your child. Don’t hesitate to ask for help – whether that means making a schedule so that multiple caregivers are involved in the plan, having someone to talk to, or creating your own reinforcement for follow through (hello, dark chocolate and ice cream!). Finally, keep in mind that consistency is key. Since teeth brushing occurs daily – or even twice daily – it’s important to follow your chosen plan. By creating a task analysis, leaning on your team, and implementing a consistent schedule, you can help your child with autism develop independent teeth brushing skills.
Contact us today to learn more about how we can support your child as they develop independent living skills.