Autism and teeth grinding frequently appear together. This might cause you to worry or concerned. If you have autism or a child with autism, have you noticed teeth grinding habit that might cause damage over time? If so, read on to learn more about this relationship, what it can mean, and what you can do.
What is autism and is it becoming more common?
The Autism Society offers this definition of autism, drawn from the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual:
Persistent differences in communication, interpersonal relationships, and social interaction across different environments.
This encompasses a wide spectrum of behaviors. Some individuals with autism are nonverbal or have atypical speech patterns. Many have difficulty reading nonverbal social cues. Some enjoy a very narrow or regimented set of interests. Others might be highly sensitive to sensory stimuli. And all of those traits, and others, exist on their own spectrum of intensity.
Researchers have noticed that the rates of autism in the U.S. have been increasing since they first started tracking them in the year 2000. In 2000, records indicated that 1 in every 150 eight-year-olds had a form of autism. By 2018, that number was 1 in every 44 eight-year-olds. In both instances, the rate is greater for boys than for girls, but signs of autism might be slightly different in girls and therefore cases could be undercounted.
So, it might be easy to jump to the conclusion that we have been experiencing some sort of autism “epidemic.” However, there are many ways to explain the increase in prevalence. First of all, how autism is recognized and described has changed over the years. It now encompasses Asperger syndrome, which appears on the milder end of the autism spectrum with less noticeable characteristics.
Additionally, awareness of autism and support systems for those who have autism have increased over the years, leading many parents to visit professionals for assessment and diagnosis of their child. And biological factors, in particular having older parents, especially an older father, may increase the chances of having autism.
So, cases of autism may be rising due to couples having children later, but the bulk of the increasing rate is likely explained by the broader definition and the significantly increased awareness.
Why do autism and teeth grinding often appear together?
One of the behaviors that often arise in those with autism is repetitive movement. Teeth grinding is a repetitive, subconscious habit of grinding the teeth or clenching the jaw. Stress and anxiety also contribute to teeth grinding habits. And those with autism may experience these at elevated rates.
Additionally, people with autism can experience certain dental issues that cause irritation in the mouth and contribute to teeth grinding. For instance, brushing and flossing may be more difficult for those with autism because of the amount of sensory stimulation caused by the activity. But without good oral hygiene, gums may become more easily infected or inflamed, leading to irritation and increased sensitivity.
Dr Greg Grillo, writing for Autistic & Unapologetic, points out that he sees patients with autism who have developed an issue often called gingival hyperplasia. This is an overgrowth of the gingival tissue that is usually brought about by medication or hormonal imbalances, but some forms are caused by poor oral hygiene.
So, it's important to find a toothbrush and flossing routine that works and will keep you or your child from developing gum or cavity issues over time. Always opt for a toothbrush with soft bristles, and try a few to find the best one. If flossing is too rough at first, try working up to it by starting out with a water flosser. These dental gadgets use a stream of water to clean around the gums and between teeth. They are not as effective as physical floss, but they are much better than not flossing.
For addressing daytime teeth grinding in children with autism, you can try introducing an oral fidget or another sensory toy that might alleviate the stress or anxiety that contributes to teeth grinding.
For adults and for children who have adult teeth, wearing a mouth guard every night to protect teeth from grinding while sleeping is an important step. This night guard might take a little time to get used to at first, especially for those with autism. So, start by wearing it for a couple of hours and then increase the amount of time over the course of a week or month.
If my child grinds their teeth, does it mean they have autism?
No, children can grind their teeth whether or not they have autism. Stress, tooth growth, tooth or jaw misalignment, and other factors can contribute to teeth grinding habits. However, if your child displays other behaviors that make you suspect they have autism, seek a professional assessment.
Fortunately, we now live in a time when support is increasingly available for those with autism. So, do not think of autism as something you should dread. It can mean doing things a little differently and learning new skills, but, when welcomed and supported, living with autism is a rich and full experience of life.
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