Sometimes, having Autism can make it more challenging than not to stay so fresh and so clean clean (I hope you sang that along to the tune of the pop hit of 2000 by Outkast as it was my intention for you to). There was a period of time when Caleb hated baths. Hated them. It was a sensory thing. I hadn’t put everything together about him and Autism yet and at that point that was really the only thing sensory-wise that stuck out about him and since he liked playing in the pool, I decided it was behavioral. As hindsight tends to be 20/20, I think that was Autism trying to tell me something then, not him being non-compliant about having hygiene forced on him. I don’t have good advice on that one because I’m not ashamed to admit that I probably didn’t help him with the most appropriate approach then because I didn’t realize what was going on. These days, bath time is his favorite time of day and he has no qualms about having water poured over his head to rinse shampoo, washrags exfoliating his behind the ear crust, etc. Tooth brushing though- now THAT was a different story.
But again…..not always. Caleb’s sensory difficulties and stims emerge almost randomly, are intense for a hot minute, but resolve fairly quickly. At least that’s how it’s played out so far. Example, he used to visual stim HARD off of tearing paper. So I lost a lot of kid’s books in his room. Now, he’s been carrying around a pack of “first words” flashcards for 3 weeks and they’re all in pristine condition. Brushing his teeth wasn’t always a “thing” for him but about 6 months ago he decided he HATED it. He also took on some oral defensiveness in general. Brushing his teeth, having his face wiped, getting medicine, etc. Now I know some of you may read this and say “Erin, toddlers don’t love these things, in general. What’s the big deal about your kid not liking it?” To which I would reply, “I’m going to assume you’ve never taken on the challenge of brushing the teeth of an orally defensive toddler with Autism who has a limited verbal vocabulary because it’s the equivalent of how you’d feel if Neptune rose from the sea and came at your mouth with his mighty trident.” Bless your heart.
Here are some quick tips on how we said “Take that!” to brushing our teeth!
No, you don’t get to just not have your teeth brushed because you don’t like it. Honestly, this helps- once he realized that this was in fact going to be happening every day of his life, I think he realized his energy and efforts would be better utilized to take me to task on something else I’d be more likely to give in about.
We talked about it. In single words or 2 word phrases that he could understand. We made sure we knew body part vocabulary- especially vocabulary involving the mouth and the vocabulary involved with brushing your teeth. Here are some body part vocabulary ideas for you. We didn’t do this, but I’ve since discovered some Pinterest play ideas that promotes more positive and fun connotations of tooth brushing to help get kids comfortable for it to happen to them. Check those out, as well as visual schedules for tooth brushing here. Remember how helpful visual aids are for kids with Autism!
I think Caleb didn’t appreciate that I was the only one who got an opinion about what was going to happen to his mouth and when it was going to happen. So we started using 2 toothbrushes. They were both child friendly but I used one to actually brush his teeth and he used one to play/explore around in there at the same time. So, instead of me torturing him against his will while he stood there passively, he got to be an active participant. Now that’s he’s comfortable and confident around a toothbrush, I let him brush his teeth independently first and then follow up myself with a good scrub, which he compliantly lets me do without hesitation now.
If I were to simply drag him in there and show him a toothbrush when he was in the midst of his aversion to it, I guarantee it would have gone nothing but TRAGICALLY. I had to prepare him. I told him it was coming during his bath and while we were getting pj’s on. I used a calm, pleasant voice. I didn’t threaten him with the toothbrush. I made it playful. That’s how we got through baths at one point. Daddy used the shower poof to play tickle monster all over him which inevitably would crack him up and give him a little sensory input and he’d end up having a few seconds of fun, which gradually increased to an entire bath time of fun! The same worked for us for tooth brushing. And I never forced his jaw open. What better way to reinforce an aversion?
5. Toothbrush Selection
It really did matter. I tried manual toothbrushes that had ninja turtles, Jake and the Neverland pirates, all of the characters. No go. Then I tried an electric toothbrush to provide extra sensory input to his mouth- YES!!!! NOW we were onto something. He liked how it felt, I liked that it was easier to manipulate because it moved on it’s own better- we were getting closer. Then, while I was grocery shopping at Kroger one day, I found our game changer. Background on Caleb: OBSESSED with stickers. Like….I’ve spent a lot of time scrubbing them off my living room hardwood cause he loves them so. Back to the story: I found a child’s electric toothbrush that came with stickers for you to decorate your toothbrush with! What better way to make the dreaded toothbrush our new best friend!?!?!? It worked. For real, ya’ll. Between that and the calm, consistent approach with instructions given on his developmental level that I made sure to pre-teach him beforehand, we conquered tooth brushing.
While we enjoy brushing our teeth now, we’re by no means masters yet. We’re getting ready to upgrade to a new toothbrush that has the red and green lights on it to tell you to keep brushing versus when to stop so we can spend more time in there. We’ve also never been to the dentist but plan on going for the first time this summer (but I started planning this summer dentist trip back in the winter cause you know…….Autism).
Grab that Spiderman electric toothbrush, a tube of Tom’s toddler training paste, and prevent those cavities! I’ll let you know how we progress and promise to record all shenanigans that ensue when we’re brave enough to break out floss for the first time……………..