Child in therapy with doctor

10 Tips for Bringing Your Child with Special Needs to the Doctor or Dentist

Navigating medical appointments with children can be a challenging task for any parent, but when you’re a parent of a special needs child, these routine visits can often become sources of anxiety and stress. Children with Autism, in particular, tend to struggle with visits to the doctor. At Westside Children’s Therapy, we understand the unique challenges that parents face when it comes to medical appointments. Through our ABA therapy programs, we’ve helped give children with ASD the tools they need to adapt better to a number of social interactions including appointments and back-to-school transitions. 

From school physicals and vaccinations to vision checks and dental visits, each experience can pose its own set of challenges. However, with the right approach and preparation, these appointments can be turned into positive and manageable experiences for both you and your child.

In this blog, we’ll explore some practical tips to help make these appointments less stressful. The advice provided is applicable to all parents, as we believe that fostering a calm and supportive environment during medical appointments is beneficial for children of all abilities.

1 – Choose an ASD Friendly Provider

Some providers are more well-equipped than others to work with children with Autism and developmental or sensory differences. Ask around or post in a local special needs parenting group. Westside has compiled a list of Facebook groups in the Chicagoland area where questions like this are regularly posted. If you go to a group practice, call ahead of time and ask which provider is the most experienced with special needs children, and share your unique needs and situation. Many practices will reserve extra time for the appointment. 

2 – Schedule Well

To avoid extra waiting time when you arrive at the doctor’s office, ask for the first appointment of the day. This generally ensures that you will be seen quickly, as the doctor is not delayed from previous appointments. You can also ask for the first appointment after lunch, though it may be delayed if the morning appointments run long.

3 – Managing Shots with Children with Autism

Some medical practices can provide extra accommodations for children with sensory needs or high levels of anxiety. This can include the use of a numbing cream prior to administering a shot. Your pediatrician or developmental pediatrician may also prescribe a short-acting anxiety medication for use prior to medical appointments. Your child’s doctor can discuss with you what options are the most appropriate. 

If your practice is part of a hospital group, you may be able to request a representative from Child Life Services attend the appointment. Child Life can provide toys and sensory objects, and they do an excellent job explaining any necessary procedures in a child-friendly way. Call your doctor’s office ahead of time to find out what they can offer to help make shots less distressing for your child.

4 – Pack Comfort Items

Make sure to pack a bag containing your child’s favorite comfort items, such as their stuffy, blanket, favorite book, and toys. You can also pack a tablet and headphones to distract them during waiting times.

Items to consider bringing with:

  • Stuffed Animal: Comforting companions for reassurance and distraction.
  • Noise-Canceling Headphones: Reduce sensory overload from dental equipment sounds.
  • Visual Supports: Prepare and provide predictability with visual aids.
  • Weighted Blanket: Deep pressure for relaxation.
  • Fidget Toys: Anxiety relief through tactile engagement.

5 -Addressing ASD Sensory Needs

Many children have additional sensory needs or aversions that make going to the doctor or dentist a stressful experience. If your child is sensitive to loud noises, you may want to pack noise-canceling headphones. Some offices provide therapeutic equipment, such as weighted blankets, sensory brushes, or other sensory tools. 

Medical offices often have bright overhead fluorescent lights. This can be uncomfortable for children who are sensitive to light, especially when they are asked to lie down on the exam table. Bring child-sized sunglasses for them. You can also request that the lights be turned off during the appointment (most exam rooms have plenty of natural light from the windows). If your child is sensitive to movement, request that their chair at the dentist’s office gets reclined first, then have your child climb into it.

6 – Medical Accommodations for Children with Autism

Just like schools will make accommodations for children with 504 Plans and IEPs, doctor’s offices can also make accommodations for children with special needs. Some kids prefer standing during the appointment as opposed to sitting. Some kids prefer their parents’ touch to that of a medical provider. In this case, ask what you can do to assist during the appointment – perhaps you can hold the stethoscope up to their chest or fasten the blood pressure cuff on their arm. 

Let your doctor’s office know ahead of time what your child’s communication preferences are, especially if they benefit from visual aids.

7 – Do a Practice Visit

If this is your first time at a new office or if your child is exceptionally nervous, ask the office if you can do a “trial run” with your child. This would involve driving to the office, going into the waiting room, and perhaps even sitting in an exam room for a few minutes. You can bring along some toy doctor’s tools like a stethoscope, and have a fake appointment! Make it a great experience and reward them afterward.  

8 – Utilize Social Stories

Social stories are a great way to prepare children for any sort of new experience, including visiting the doctor. They provide children with a structured and visual way to understand and navigate new situations, promoting improved comprehension and communication skills. Feel free to consult any of your child’s Westside providers for assistance in creating a personalized social story or obtaining a ready-made one in print.

9 – Mindfulness Techniques

Ask your child’s Occupational Therapist for mindfulness techniques and deep breathing strategies to practice prior to their appointment. This can help alleviate nervousness, promoting a calm experience. You can even bring a visual list of calming strategies along with you, and let your child pick which one they want to use. 

10 – Rewards

Plan a really fun activity immediately after the visit. You can include this in their social story, so they know they have something exciting to look forward to. This could include going to a favorite restaurant like McDonald’s, getting ice cream, or simply reading their favorite story together at home. 

With time, medical appointments will get easier to manage. Your child will become more familiar with their providers, and they will also gain valuable coping skills to manage stress as they age.  In the meantime, advocating for your child and his or her unique needs will go a long way in helping these necessary appointments go smoother and cause less distress.

If you are interested in learning more about Westside’s therapy services, please click the link below or call us at (815) 469-1500 and our team will walk you through the process.