Dr. Gillian Smith on Autism Friendly Dental Practices

Dr. Gillian Smith is a Bray-based dentist. She previously made headlines in 2012 when she won the Sensodyne Sensitive Dentist Award. This award was due to her specially tailored treatment for Neal Dhont, which saved him from experiencing a more traumatic procedure. We talked to her about her methodology and measures made in the Dental Suite to be more accessible to patients with additional needs.

You recently hosted an autism friendly event in the Dental Suite. How was this recieved?

We had some great engagement for it. Five people signed up along with their families and carers. We had a great range of patients from children to young adults. It was a good start and hopefully we can build something bigger on it.

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What motivated you to this event? 

I set up this practice eight years ago. It evolved as a practice which welcomes patients with additional needs. We’ve already had plenty of autistic patients. We had introductory sessions to come and meet to meet our team and but it’s often very noisy and overstimulating. We felt offering it in the evening would be easier and less pressure. There’s no charge for the introductory session and no procedures take place. It’s just for familiarising yourself with the environment and what care you might need. These evening sessions were made possible with the IDA Oral Healthcare grant. It’s a grant from the Irish Dental Association and Wrigley’s directed at helping dentists’ local communities.

Why autism?

It wasn’t necessarily catered to autism initially. We just felt it would be most useful for people with sensory processing issues. Anyone who would be overwhelmed with new environments would need a more individual approach.

What would an individual approach entail?

My approach with a nervous patient is now my approach with everyone. You have to respect that your working on someone’s face and mouth. It’s a part of our body that we’re naturally very protective of. So as a result it doesn’t feel natural to let someone get so close to it. An autistic patient has all of these anxieties but heightened. My approach usually involves explaining what’s about to happen. For example, I’ll explain what a chair going back means and how that feels.

I slow down my language and give clear instructions with children especially: ‘Head on the pillow, hands on the tummy, open really wide.’ I speak slower with autistic patients, but this is more because they’ve got enough going on without me talking quickly and giving a lot of information. Working with autistic patients has taught me to communicate more clearly with patients and how to tell them how their senses will be affected. In this sense, making the suite autism friendly has benefited all patients.

What has your main experience treating autistic patients been?

I’ve treated people who may not have otherwise accessed care, so in this sense the work is very fulfilling. I learned quickly everyone has their own needs and sense of what’s wrong or even what’s uncomfortable. Some patients don’t want anaesthetic because of the sensation but others want it so they can have multiple sessions in one go so they don’t have to work up the courage for multiple separate appointments. To help with this anxiety sometimes have several visits to acclimatise before treatment. This gives the patient a clear idea of what to expect so there’s no surprises. 

What would you recommend for our readers looking to book an appointment or come to the introductory sessions.

If you want to come to one of the sessions give the surgery a call at (01) 202 2809 or email info@thedentalsuite.ie and we’ll organise a timeslot. We make sure the environment is static and not too unpredictable if you need multiple visits. The next introductory sessions are 12th September (Thursday) evening and 12th October (Saturday) morning.


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