Saturday, February 12, 2011

Tackling the Terrible Toothbrush: Tips for autism and brushing teeth

Children in general run from brushing teeth but for individuals with autism it can be even more difficult.  This struggle can lead to tooth decay and even more pain and suffering at the dentist. A few tips and strategies to help ease children and adults with developmental disabilities:

Sensitivity to the bristles:   Every individual is different so try a range of toothbrushes with soft versus more firm bristles.  Even the size of the brush and bristles can cause aversion and at times make the individual gag. 

Battery Operated Toothbrushes:  For some this has done the trick.  There is less 'work' involved since it is doing a lot of the scrubbing for you.  This is again an individual preference as far as tolerating the 'tickling' feeling the brush can have.  There are also many that shut off after the appropriate amount of time, making it easier to know how long to brush.

Toothpaste:  Try and try again until you find the one that is most tolerable to the individual.  It is hard to predict ahead of time what will be less overpowering or offensive of a taste.  Many of the adult minty flavors are too overpowering for those with autism that I have worked with.  There are luckily lots of choices of flavors especially with those that are targeted more towards children. 

Interests:  Whether it is Thomas the Train, Elmo or Harry Potter it is typically pretty easy to find a toothbrush with that favored character.  Sometimes that alone is enough to motivate those that are more reluctant to cleaning their teeth.

Visual Time Timer

Timers:  Sand timers, egg timers, and visual time timers are great for making it more understandable how long to brush.  If brushing is a battle, start with merely a few seconds and work up to the full two minutes. 

Visual Steps:  Break it down into simple, meaningful steps.  Use pictures to show each section of the mouth and how many times to brush.  For instance, Bottom left brush 15 times, Bottom front 15 times, etc.  If the individual is having a hard time with the amount of time slowly work up to more brushing for each section.


Musical toothbrushes:  There are lots of varieties of musical toothbrushes on the market.  It is great about determining how long to brush and also incorporating interests.  A new favorite of mine is this toothbrush:  It is a little more pricey but it has some extra 'bells and whistles'.  When the button is pushed it tells the child to get ready to brush.  It sings through the song twice allowing the parent/caregiver and individual to each have a turn.  Then it reminds the child to rinse at the end. 

Flossing:  Flossing is a pain for most of us and no exception to the individuals we work with.  Before you stick your hand in their mouth with the floss (and lose a finger or two!), try the plastic flossers.  There are some that are more child friendly but any will do.  It also makes it much easier for the individual to learn more independence in this area with the floss on the handy holder. 



  1. You're absolutely right with all your suggestions. I'm looking for more images for each section of the mouth to brush (front part of teeth on top left right and center, bottom left right and center, inside of the teeth, top left right and center, bottom left right and center, and chewing surface of teeth top and bottom left right and center). That's a lot of images! Maybe I should contact a dentist? Any suggestions?

  2. Suzy, I think it can be overwhelming thinking about all the steps! You can take pictures of the individual brushing each section. Also, this site has some nice pictured that are even more detailed:

    Thanks so much for your comment!

  3. Hmmm... maybe I'll just take a picture of myself brushing each section. I work with a kiddo who is able to brush his teeth only when someone is modeling. I want to move towards having him do it more independently. I took a TEACCH workshop so I know having a flip chart will help move him in that direction. Still if you have other suggestions, I'd love to hear them!

  4. I did a task analysis and came up with 24 steps. If this is what it takes to get him more independent with his toothbrushing then this is what it takes! I took a TEACCH workshop so I knew to do this but I only thought of it after looking at your page. ;-)

  5. We have battled with getting independent for 2 years with my son. I am taking pictures of his sister doing each section of his teeth. What a great idea!

  6. I have a flosser where you actually take floss and wrap it around the flosser it has a big handle so you can get the back of your teeth really well it's a lot easier for me then having the smaller ones shown above and just using floss it's self

  7. It is very important for us to brush our teeth on a regular basis, at least twice a day.

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  8. It is also very important to change toothbrushes after you've had a cold, since the bristles can collect germs that can lead to reinfection.

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  9. Brushing your teeth with fluoride toothpaste is essential to good oral health. Not only does brushing your teeth help prevent tooth decay, it also helps prevent gum disease., Thanks for providing these important tips .

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  11. I like your post. This post really awesome and very helpful to me. Please keep posting good contents. Thank you.

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  12. Wonderful thought! I am highly touched with the fact that somebody has considered such a small thing for kids with autism. My nephew suffers from autism and I had planned a ‘trip to a Torrance dentist ’ for him. I have heard he is a very fine dentist so I am taking my nephew there and thanks for sharing such a lovely post.

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