Just before leaving to pick up Seth at school yesterday, I got a reminder in the mail from our most recent dentist. It’s time for cleanings. In the car, I found myself getting more and more agitated.
This is the dentist we switched to, after the last dentist. Before we saw this newest dentist for the first time I called ahead to pre-pave. To let them know about Riley’s anxiety. I assured them it would most likely be fine, she’s doing so well, but I felt it would be better for them to at least be aware.
In the car Riley said she was nervous. I assured her it was just a cleaning. I told her she’d had plenty of cleanings by now, and it would be okay. In the waiting room, the assistant came to call her back. I asked, “Riley, do you want me to come with you or stay in the waiting room?” I’d always come with her before, but she’s getting older. She grabbed my hand and said, “I want you to come.”
At this point, the dental assistant attempted very strongly to intercept me, and take Riley back by herself. We went around at least three times with it, and she was quite firm. You could tell she’d been sent out to do the dirty work. Like she was going to be in trouble or something if I waltzed back there with my kid. I told her I wanted to see the dentist and she put me in a little side room, (with Riley), to wait. At this point, not wanting to be the cause of any strife, Riley started ramping up, pleading, “It’s okay Mom. I’ll go by myself. It’s okay.”
I told her, “No it isn’t okay.”
If my child on the autism spectrum has a problem with anxiety, and it will reassure her to have her mother in the room for a cleaning, then what is the big deal? Why do dentists assume that they know better than parents of children with autism? How much training do they actually have with kids on the spectrum? I’m betting none. Why do they assume they know what to do if they run into a problem? Why do they assume we are the problem?
Dental visits are anxiety provoking for many people, and for Riley even more so. You can’t minimize her sensory issues. She is doing so well, and she puts on a brave face, but hold her hand walking down a street and you realize how truly sensitive she still is. She flinches and squeezes your hand at noises that wouldn’t phase most of us. In the car, she screams if I hit the brakes unexpectedly. Her panic response goes from zero to 100 in an instant.
In all likelihood her cleaning would be fine, but there was a chance it wouldn’t be. There was a chance the dentist wouldn’t take her sensory issues into account. And if not, there was a chance he’d be the trigger of a full scale scene. And there is a chance he would then shame her and blame her for her reaction to his own insensitivity. Ask me how I know. This happened with one of the assistants at the orthodontist’s just a few months ago. It’s never ending, the need for advocacy, and until I am clear she can do it on her own, I will be with her, if she wants me to be.
It took years of hard work to get her in the dentist’s chair. I wonder if this dentist realized that? I wonder if he realized how punched-in-the-gut I’ve felt nearly every time I’ve had to deal with a member of his profession?
In the end, the dentist never came into the “intimidation room” to talk with me. We were whisked back. I sat in the corner unobtrusively, while Riley got her teeth cleaned, without incident. I did not hover over her. I did not make it worse. I looked out the window, and held space for my girl, as she demonstrated yet another feat of bravery. Letting professionals she’d never met poke around in her mouth, bright lights, sounds, uncomfortable sensations. She handled it all.
When I got home I went into the privacy of my bedroom and cried. It is so tiring to be treated like this, and when it happens it brings up every other time it’s happened.
And then, like we autism parents do, I got on with things.
The reminder post card is serving to mark my page in a book I’m currently reading. It’s about the brain and the different areas of it and how they effect various learning disabilities and how we can strengthen areas of weakness. It’s what I do. I study. I help my kids.
As I turn the post card with the reminder over and look at it, I think about all this. It occurs to me Cleveland has a dental school. I wonder if somehow I could arrange to talk with the up-and-coming students. I wonder if in some small way, I can help turn this around.