Finding dentist for autistic child isn’t easy

Published 8:45 am Monday, April 4, 2011

Column: Stacey Bahr, Guest Column
If you’ve read my previous guest column, or followed my former blog on the Tribune website at all, you’re familiar with my son, David. He’s the sweetest little 9-year-old I’ve ever known, and I’m not biased at all. He’s also pretty severely autistic.

Needless to say, many of life’s daily tasks are a struggle for him, and the simplest things come with difficulty. Recently, he suffered a fall on a sidewalk and busted up his face pretty badly. The result was a forehead of road rash, a fat lip and a broken front tooth. You should see the other guy!

My first thoughts were for his safety, of course, and the pain he must have felt with it. When I first saw him after it happened, I bawled like a baby, even though he was grinning and laughing and not shedding a tear himself, as if to say, “Look mom, look at my cool scars!”

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My second thought was the dread of finding a dentist for his tooth, especially on an emergency basis since I had no idea if the nerve was exposed. David has had countless doctor visits over his short life, and now being in a doctor’s office brings anxiety, fear and anger from him, and I don’t blame him. Just coming up to the door of a doctor’s office is enough to make him plant his feet, grab the door frame and scream bloody murder.

I keep his teeth as clean as he’ll let me, but he’s not the most cooperative. So any dental work he’d have to undergo would have to be under sedation. Every phone call I made brought the same answers. “No, I’m sorry, we don’t do sedation dentistry on children.” Or, “I’m sorry Mrs. Bahr, we only do sedation on children one day per month, we book three months out, and we don’t do emergency cases.”

One lady I talked to had obviously never seen or known a child with autism, as she even proceeded to chastise me for never having my son to a dentist before. Believe me, lady, when you’re an autism parent, trying to decide if the trauma of such an event is worth it is not an easy decision, and I didn’t come to it lightly. I’m not a bad parent. It’s because I chose to spare him from that trauma that made me a good mother. Some people will probably never understand.

So what the heck was I going to do now?

Fortunately, a coworker of mine was doing her own Internet search while I was making calls. She found a dentist that sees special needs children in the metro area, and, as it turned out, was part of Children’s Hospital, of which David was already a patient.

I called, got an appointment for that day, and off we went. The dentist was patient, kind and asked all the right questions for a special needs child. The exam was on David’s terms, and she was the perfect fit for us. No nerve exposure, so no need for emergency treatment. Our next appointment will cover many things under anesthesia; a cleaning, X-rays, fix the broken tooth and put sealant on his molars.

It pains me that for each appointment David has, whether it’s for his doctor, neurologist or now the dentist, we have to drive so far. There are so many children like David, and not enough doctors that know how to handle them. This is a problem that needs to be fixed, because these kids aren’t going away, they’re only getting more numerous. Not everyone has the flexibility we have with wonderful employers in the Tribune and Hy-Vee that understand when we need to be gone for a whole day to the doctor. Not everyone has the means to get to these doctors. I feel sad for all the children with autism that may not be getting the treatment that can help them because their parents can’t manage it. It breaks my heart, and I feel their pain.

April is Autism Awareness Month. It seems strange to say ‘happy’ Autism Awareness Month, so I’ll say this: The number of children affected by autism in Minnesota is estimated to be 1 in 100 or greater. Chances are high that you know someone affected in some way, whether a parent, caregiver, family or friend.

I salute all my fellow autism parents, and would like us all to remember that even though we feel alone, we are many. So very many.

Stacey Bahr is the creative director at the Albert Lea Tribune.