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When a Dentist Disregarded My Asperger's

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I don’t like going to the dentist. I don’t think many people do. I hate the sounds, the
smells, the tastes… it’s just an altogether unpleasant experience. And this last time was the worst.

I was convinced before the appointment that I had at least one cavity. It had been a little while since I last went, so that only added to my anxiety. I’ve had cavities before and, needless to say, I didn’t particularly enjoy them. While the cavities themselves never hurt, the fillings were terrible — the vibration of the drill, while not exactly painful, was terrible. I had that memory stuck in my head as I went to the dentist that day.

Since I was so nervous about having a cavity, we had to schedule the appointment at the last minute. While I don’t remember the last time I had a cleaning very well (admittedly, it’s been a while), I remember it was a fine experience. The office was quiet, the dentist worked quickly, and it went well. But this time we had to go to a different dentist, which I was OK with. I just wanted to get it over with. So we scheduled it and my mom took me.

Before my appointment, my mom filled out the paperwork for me. Filling out paperwork is difficult for me, and since I was already anxious, she did it to help me out. I didn’t realize until the dentist brought me in for an initial consultation that my mom had written that I had Asperger’s on the paperwork. I immediately thought that was a good idea. But the dentist quickly brushed it off with a comment along the lines of, “Oh well, I’m not worried about that.” It bugged me at the time, but I didn’t say anything. When I’m anxious like that I’m not very good at putting my thoughts into words, and it didn’t help that the dentist was trying to make idle conversation. It was hard enough to keep up with that.

I’m sure he meant no harm. Heck, he was probably trying to make me feel more comfortable with the conversation, and maybe he meant to be empowering by ignoring my diagnosis. But that’s not how it played out. After the consultation I got X-rays; then another person came in to do “measurements.” I’d never had a dentist do this before. She immediately told me she’d be yelling out numbers, and anything about three was bad. OK. So she starts and I realize that “measuring” actually meant “poking me in the gums with a sharp metal instrument.” That’s not at all what I was expecting. Then she started calling out higher and higher numbers and I was panicking. I fought to hold back the tears, but between the pain and the fear, I was crying. She asked a couple of times if I was OK, and I said yes automatically. I just wanted this all to be over with.

After that, the dentist I’d initially met came in. At this point I’d been juggled around by multiple people. Also, the office was loud and rather chaotic, with constant shifting of dentists between patients. So when the dentist started talking about how my teeth were really concerning, I was panicking. He went on about multiple cavities, needing at least one wisdom tooth removed (I’d been told at my last appointment that I didn’t need any removed), and when we could do the procedures.

At this point I was barely coherent. I was crying and panicking and not responding well. Finally I was able to say what I should have said earlier — “Someone get my mom.” They brought my mom in and then started to bombard her with information. Even she was caught off guard. They convinced us to schedule an appointment ASAP to tackle the first, admittedly rather big cavity. My mom was shocked to realize they hadn’t even done the cleaning yet, and I managed to put my foot down and say “not today.”

As far as dental horror stories go, it wasn’t that bad. But by the end of it all I was on the verge of a meltdown. If I hadn’t managed to ask for my mom, I probably would’ve had one. As I said before, I don’t hold it against the dentist. He was doing what he thought best, I’m sure. But when he first read my file and saw Asperger’s, he made a mistake. He brushed it off. And now I realize why it bugged me so much — my mom had put it on there for a reason. Because it was important to keep in mind. It was relevant. But he didn’t think so.

I don’t expect that dentist to be fully versed in autism spectrum disorders, or every single possible condition a person may have. That’s a lot to ask of someone. But I wondered what he could’ve done differently to make this easier. And now I’ve finally realized it, so I’m giving this as advice to other dentists and medical care providers in general.

If you don’t know how a listed illness/disability will affect your patient’s care — ask them.

I was too anxious to speak up. I’m still working on advocating for myself, like most young adults (even without autism), and I just didn’t think of what I should say. But had he asked, “Why is this listed? Is this going to affect your treatment?” I would’ve answered truthfully. I would’ve explained I have sensory issues and I get overwhelmed easily. I could explain my anxiety was more than the average person’s. I might’ve even thought to say that when presenting me with a lot of information, it would help to have my mom in the room.

After the appointment, my mom called her usual dentist — phone calls are another thing I struggle with. They gave her a plan over the phone that gave her, and me, a lot of relief. They told me what we needed to address right away and what could wait. They made it clear I was not at risk of suddenly dropping dead, that this could all be handled. But the thing my mom told me that relieved me the most? The dentist I’d be going to had worked with multiple people with Asperger’s and ASD.

We canceled our appointment with the first dentist, and now have a plan for how to handle everything. And now my anxiety is less, though I’m still dreading that drill. As I said earlier, I don’t know if anyone really enjoys the dentist. I imagine most dentists accept that their appointments aren’t exactly a highlight of most people’s days. Making the patient feel comfortable is important, and one way to do so is to work their care around their different disabilities. And if you don’t know how? Ask.

Because while they may not always be able to answer, it doesn’t hurt to ask.

Getty image by Bojan89.

Originally published: July 3, 2018
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