Can Kaleidoscopic Therapy Improve the Dental Experience for Autistic Children?

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Researchers at the University of Southern Carolina have embarked on a mission to provide comfort to autistic children around the dental setting. The effort confronts a long enduring problem for children with autism and their parents. Poor dental health in autistic children often leads to more severe problems such as infection, pain and discomfort. Autistic children often suffer from anxiety problems, unable to adapt to the noise in a dental setting, particularly the high pitched sound of the high speed handpiece. The presence of dental instruments is also tied to the anxiety. The problem is such a widespread concern that researchers sought a large grant to fund their trials. They received a $3.1 million grant from the National Institute of Health.

The study looks to adapt sensory stimuli in the dental setting to provide a less stressful environment and negative responses. To date, this is the largest gran that the USC Division of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy has received.

The ‘Sensory Adapted Dental Environment to enhance Oral Care for Children’ study is led by Professor Sharon Cermak. Also known as “SADE-2”, the study received large support from the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial research. The NIDCR has helped to fund Dr. Cermak’s research for four years and gave the SADE-2 grant after receiving promising results.

According to Dr. Cermak, “a lot of kids are really afraid of going to the dentist. All of these factors are really uncomfortable for children, particularly those with autism.” The new study will build on Dr. Cermak’s current work. The success of her research was documented in the American Journal of Occupational therapy.

The controlled trial will provide sensory alterations via kaleidoscopic lighting visualizations that are projected the ceilings and walls of the operatory room. The environment will also provide soothing and rhythmic music and a covering “butterfly wrap”. In total, 220 children will be evaluated during the trial; 110 of those children suffer from autism. The responses of both groups to a typical dentals setting with dental instruments present and the kaleidoscopic setting (also with dental instruments present) will be compared to see if stressed levels can be controlled.

After four years of research, Dr. Cermak has discovered that the setting works to calm the anxiety of autistic children in a dental setting. The therapeutic effects consist of visual, auditory and tactile stimulation throughout the dental procedure. Now, Dr. Cermak wants to breakdown the analysis from her trial to see which type of autistic children benefit the most from the procedure.

There have been extensive studies over the last five years that led to the NIDCR’s donation. A 2010 study revealed that out of 400 parents of autistic children surveyed, two thirds reported difficulties trying to give their children dental cleanings within the dental setting. The children responded negatively to the sound of drill and to the site of sharp dental instruments. USC researchers also found that 18 percent of parents with autistic children claim to have used restraints during the procedure.

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