Brushing Teeth: A Guide for Parents of Autistic Children

brushing teeth aba task analysis

Introduction

Teeth brushing is a vital skill for promoting independence and good hygiene in autistic children. We aim to provide professional, yet friendly and clinically supported guidance to make this routine more manageable and less challenging for both children and caregivers.

Understanding This Guide

This guide is modeled off of a Task Analysis. It might look different when applied in the clinical setting, but the idea and science behind it are the same. Task analysis is a cornerstone in Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) that involves breaking down complex tasks into smaller, more manageable steps (Cooper, Heron, & Heward, 2007). This technique is particularly effective for children with autism, who may struggle with understanding and performing multi-step tasks.

Why Focus on Brushing Teeth?

Brushing teeth is an essential self-care skill that can be challenging for children with autism due to sensory sensitivities, motor skill difficulties, and understanding the sequence of steps involved (Steinbrenner et al., 2020). By mastering this skill, children gain independence, improved oral hygiene, and a sense of accomplishment.

Step-by-Step Guide to Brushing Teeth

Here’s a detailed task analysis/guide for brushing teeth, tailored for children with autism:

  1. Identify the Materials: Start by familiarizing the child with the toothbrush, toothpaste, and sink. Consistent use of the same materials can help reduce anxiety.
  2. Open the Toothpaste: Guide the child in opening the toothpaste cap. This can be a fine motor skill challenge, so patience is key.
  3. Apply Toothpaste: Teach the child to squeeze a pea-sized amount of toothpaste onto the brush. Visual aids can be helpful here.
  4. Wet the Toothbrush: Demonstrate how to wet the brush slightly under the tap. This step can be modified according to the child’s sensory preferences.
  5. Brushing Technique: Show the correct brushing technique – circular motions, covering all surfaces of the teeth, for two minutes. Use a timer to help the child understand the duration.
  6. Spitting Out Toothpaste: Teach the child to spit out the toothpaste without swallowing. This step is crucial for safety and may require repeated practice.
  7. Rinsing the Mouth and Brush: Guide the child in rinsing their mouth with water and cleaning the toothbrush under running water.
  8. Putting Away Supplies: Encourage the child to place the toothbrush back in its holder and close the toothpaste cap.
  9. Praise and Reinforcement: Always end with positive reinforcement for the child’s efforts, regardless of the outcome.

Customizing the Approach

Each child with autism is unique, and so is their learning style. Some may benefit from visual schedules or social stories about brushing teeth, while others might respond well to verbal cues or physical prompts (Gray, 2015). It’s important to tailor the approach to the individual child’s needs.

Overcoming Challenges

Sensory issues are a common challenge in children with autism. If a child is sensitive to the taste or texture of toothpaste, experiment with different flavors or types. For children who are overwhelmed by the sensation of brushing, desensitization techniques, such as starting with a toothbrush without toothpaste, can be helpful (American Dental Association, 2021).

Importance of Consistency and Routine

Consistency is key in teaching new skills to children with autism. Establishing a regular routine for brushing teeth, preferably at the same time each day, helps in building this habit (Koegel et al., 2009).

Involving Caregivers and Siblings

Involving family members in the learning process can provide additional support and reinforcement. Siblings can serve as role models, and caregivers can ensure consistency and follow-through.

Professional Support

Sometimes, additional support from a BCBA or an occupational therapist might be necessary, especially for children with more significant challenges related to motor skills or severe sensory sensitivities.

Conclusion

Teaching a child with autism to brush their teeth independently is a journey that requires patience, understanding, and creativity. By breaking down the task into smaller steps, using consistent routines, and customizing the approach to the child’s needs, this essential skill can be mastered. Remember, each small step forward is a significant achievement in the path towards greater independence and health for your child.

Propel Autism is dedicated to providing expert behavior analysis services to help children with autism develop essential life skills. For more information or support, please contact us.

References

Cooper, J.O., Heron, T.E., & Heward, W.L. (2007). Applied Behavior Analysis (2nd Edition). Pearson Education.

Steinbrenner, J.R., et al. (2020). Evidence-Based Practices for Children, Youth, and Young Adults with Autism. National Clearinghouse on Autism Evidence and Practice Review Team.

Gray, C. (2015). Social Stories. The New Social Story Book.

American Dental Association. (2021). Oral Health for Children with Autism. [Online Resource].

Koegel, R.L., Koegel, L.K., & McNerney, E.K. (2009). Pivotal Areas in Intervention for Autism. Journal of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology.Introducing new foods to children can be a challenge in itself, but when you have an Autistic child who also has eating difficulties or inflexibilities, it can become even more challenging. Autistic children can have sensory sensitivities that make trying new foods difficult. We always want to encourage our child/children to expand their palate without creating an aversive experience. This can require planning and patience. However, introducing new foods to your Autistic child is not impossible. With some creativity and gentle perseverance, you can help your child expand their palate and develop a healthier relationship with a variety of foods.

 

Reviewed by:

Brandie Buckner
Brandie BucknerBCBA
Brandie Buckner BCBA, LBA holds her Master’s of Science in Applied Behavior Analysis. Brandie originally hails from California, and is currently serving as a BCBA in the greater Atlanta area. Brandie is passionate about making a difference in the lives of families with Autistic children. Being a parent of 2 Autistics, prompted her to serve within the Autistic community. Brandie began as an advocate, and quickly realized the barriers families face everyday. Brandie believes that each child should be given the opportunity to thrive, have access to available resources, gain personal independence, and move towards a life that provides purpose and pride in themselves. Brandie loves creating learning opportunities for children that help them grow, and enjoys working with parents toward socially significant goals, while providing empathy and respecting cultural differences. Brandie also holds a Bachelor’s of Science in Organizational Leadership, and was a two-time business owner before she became a military spouse. In the future, Brandie would like to create/expand resources for Autistics, beyond the early intervention age. Brandie has lived in various locations, she loves to travel, and enjoys the beauty of nature.

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