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Researchers study sensory adapted dental office for kids

May 29, 2015

Los Angeles — University of Southern California researchers found that children who saw a dentist in a sensory adapted dental environment exhibited decreased psychological anxiety and reported lower pain and sensory discomfort than children in a regular dental environment.

The research, published May 1 in an article in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, focused on children with autism spectrum disorders and some typically developing children.

In the study, 44 Children’s Hospital Los Angeles patients — half with autism and half “typically developing” — underwent two professional dental cleanings. One cleaning took place in a regular dental environment while the other was in a sensory adapted dental environment.

In the latter environment, practitioners used a seat cover that looked like a gigantic butterfly whose wings wrapped around the child and provided a comforting, deep-pressure hug instead of using traditional means to secure the child in the dental chair. Researchers also turned off overhead office lights and headlamps, projecting slow-moving visual effects onto the ceiling and playing soothing music.

Both children who are typically developing and those with autism exhibited decreased psychological anxiety and reported lower pain and sensory discomfort in the modified environment, according to the article.
“The use of this type of dental environment has the potential to not only improve dental  care for children with (autism), but for children with other disabilities, and typically developing children with dental anxiety and/or sensory processing difficulties,” researchers said in the report.

The study is ongoing and next the researchers will increase their sample size — using 110 children in each group — to determine which factors (e.g., age, anxiety, sensory over-responsivity) best predict which children respond best to the intervention, according to the university.

“One of our long-term goals with this study is to help dentists develop protocols for their own dental clinics to see how sensory components are contributing to behavioral issues,” said Sharon Cermak, Ed.D., the study’s lead author and professor at the USC Mrs. T.H. Chan Division of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy, and professor of pediatrics at the Keck School of Medicine of USC.

Other authors of the article “Sensory Adapted Dental Environments to Enhance Oral Care for Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders: A Randomized Controlled Pilot Study” were Leah I. Stein Duker, Ph.D.; Marian E. Williams, Ph.D.; Christianne Joy Lane, Ph.D.; Ann E. Borreson, M.D.; Michael E. Dawson, Ph.D., and Jose C. Polido, D.D.S.

The National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research funded the study.