There’s no nice way to say this. Our last trip to the dentist a couple months ago was traumatizing. I haven’t really wanted to talk much about it. It was that bad.
Let me preface the rest of this by saying that it had nothing to do with the dentist or the staff. Unlike our previous dentists’ office who we thought treated us poorly, we love our current dentists. There simply are some ordeals we and our autistic children have to go through that can’t be made good by anyone. Dental hygiene is hard enough for many of our children. But trips to any doctor’s office scare our J-Man into such a horrible place emotionally that I can’t describe it in words, though I imagine many of you know the kind of terror I speak of here.
If you want, you can go back and see our chronicles of dentistry in these past posts:
- Boy vs. Dentist – The Next Chapter
- Autism Meets the Dentist – To Restrain or Not Restrain
- Our Trip to the Dentist
- Time For Our Semi-Annual D-Day
- You Kinda Get Used to Weeks Like This
- Survived the dentist!
- Dreading the dentist…
I dreaded this most recent visit for even more reasons than usual. Mary was recovering from her surgery and still on restrictions against lifting any weight, so doing anything with the J-Man at the dentist was completely out for her. It would be up to me, the dentist, and the staff.
In addition, they needed to pull one of his baby teeth. It was pretty loose already, but his permanent teeth were already completely in behind it, and all those teeth in one place doing different things had been bothering him for a couple of weeks. It needed to go ahead and come out. He’s already super-super-sensitive to anything even the slightest bit unusual with his mouth, and he had been even more reluctant to let us anywhere near his mouth during all this. Clearly all this added up to a formula for impending doom at the dentist.
Thrown into the mix was the obvious fact that he was several months older, bigger, and stronger than the previous visit where we were barely able to hold him in the chair. I’ve been working out consistently for well over a year now not only for my own health but for times like this when strength is essential. But there are limits to how effective this will be. There comes a point where the amount of strength we would have to exert to hold him would be impossible to apply without injuring him. I think we’re there now.
In past visits, we’ve treaded the line between surviving the dentist visit and a cataclysm. As you might expect, this was all a recipe for disaster.
One problem became obvious as soon as we tried to start. Not surprisingly, we were in the ‘special room’ where everything is toned down and kids can holler as much as necessary without upsetting the other children in the office. Whether or not the J-Man will ever care I don’t know, but it also affords him some privacy. The problem is that there is only so much space in one of those rooms. The most people we could fit on and around the J-Man was four. But it wasn’t enough, and we all knew it immediately. Holding him in the chair was one thing, but keeping him steady enough to not get jabbed by an instrument was something else entirely. Actually, it was impossible in those circumstances. His safety, and perhaps that of the dentist and hygienist as well, was at high risk.
So I gave them permission to do something I dreaded ever being faced with – putting him in the papoose board. (Link to a papoose board product page – click the Images tab for more pictures.) I felt like a horrible parent, and still do two months later. The look in his eyes all during the appointment was of complete terror. He made prolonged eye contact with me, which he never does, clearly imploring me with his eyes to make it stop. I sang to him. I put my head close to his. I did everything I could think of, though I knew it wouldn’t help. I can still hear him screaming over and over again. It makes my blood run cold to think about it.
I’m not sure I’ve ever felt as awful as a parent as I did then. I knew rationally that we had to get his dental work done, but that fact couldn’t possibly alleviate how horrible I felt subjecting him to all that. If someone had told me in that moment that if I’d allow someone to stab a knife through my hand then my son would feel OK again, I would have taken the knife and done it to myself.
Eventually, it was over and done. He was pouring sweat and smelled of raw fear. I got him in the car, and he fell asleep in his car seat. (or passed out, you pick) He sat in the recliner at home with me for a while, very quiet and withdrawn. Later in the day, he got back to normal. He is very, very resilient. I, however, was submerged in a guilt-ridden mood all day and night and into the next day. Writing this puts me back there again.
It was a horrible experience, but I’ve been trying to do the only thing I can with it at this point – learn from it. Having a couple of months to reflect on it, I think we have a better idea of what we need to do next time. Here are my ideas.
- We need to talk to the dentist in advance of our next appointment and work out a strategy for a more successful visit. They have always been receptive to this, but it will clearly be more important next time.
- We need to look into sedation and whether it’s a viable option for him.
- We need to see whether there are other methods of restraint that don’t involve that papoose board but that don’t present a real danger of someone getting hurt by an instrument.
- We should at least try social stories with him and well in advance talk about dentists via story books. It’s hard to imagine that anything will convince him that going to any doctor isn’t torture, but we have to try.
- We need to talk to his teachers and OT to see if we can develop a broader strategy for easing his fears in medical situations. For example, they talk about medical things like doctors’ instruments in class using a toy doctor kit and a doll in pretend play.
Would love to hear your suggestions. I know this is something most all of us struggle with.