Now that you have read the science, let’s discuss how this information translates to the dental chair. You will not initially notice anything physically different about your patients with autism. This is both a blessing and a curse. We have had numerous run-ins with people who were upset with my son because he “looks normal” but “acts strange.” Looks can be deceiving. Pay attention to body language and behaviors. Prepare yourself for these patients to communicate differently; they may not make eye contact, respond to your social initiations, or have vocal language. For example, you may hold out your hand for a handshake or a high five and be left standing there with your hand in the air. They may, in fact, appear to be “in their own world.” In situations like these, we are naturally inclined to talk “about them” instead of “to them.” The best thing you can do is persist. Don’t expect them to answer, but ask questions and talk to your patient anyway. Sometimes this is the only thing I do differently than other clinicians and it works. Just because these patients struggle with social skills does not mean they do not want to have friends or meaningful relationships with others. Dental professionals have the opportunity to be that meaningful relationship for a patient. Very often individuals with autism are much more aware of their environment than they appear. Be friendly, give compliments, and try to be a friend. I have found individuals with autism are the most loyal people. Once they trust you and like you, it lasts for a lifetime and, in my experience, they are often more forgiving than “typical” patients.
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