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On snakes and crowded teeth
Or, when Autism goes to the dentist
A few weeks ago I was on a hike with two of my boys and our golden retriever, who gleefully bounded twenty yards ahead of us on the path. We made our way up the steepest hill first, then enjoyed the slow descent through the path of trees where we have to duck under the branches to make it through, down the dirt slope where you can choose the left or right side of the creek, and finally to the bottom of the hill for the 100 yard walk back to the parking lot. It was here, with mere yards of our hike left, that we saw it: a black and white striped snake, coiled up right in the center of the path.
Here is what I knew: It was obviously poisonous, deadly, the size of an anaconda and ready to strike with lethal force if we moved one inch in the wrong direction (It was a three-foot-long gardener snake and probably it was sleeping). Nonetheless, there is no biological reaction in my body other than the panic of Run! Flee! As fast as you Can! This is the end for us kids, this snake wants to kill us! I thought about jumping over it, but National Geographic-like images of deadly snake attacks in which they fly through the air to take down their targets overcame me. In my mind, we had no choice but to back up and veer off the path to stay clear of this monster.
But that sweet puppy bounding ahead of us was foiling my plans.
Have you ever tried to tell a dog, Come girl, come, but NO! Stopstopstop! Don’t come any further! Come to me but don’t come all the way to me. Stop at least ten feet in front of me because there is a snake that certainly has nefarious plans for us right here! No? Just me? Well I will tell you it’s a tricky thing to communicate with an animal. It sounded more like me and two boys screaming wildly all manner of panicked phrases one might say before the end, and the happiest sweetest dog on the planet looking at us with her tongue sticking out, ears perked up, head cocked to the side.
Eventually we got the dog back to us. She walked right into the war zone like Wonder Woman and the snake was so afraid of her it didn’t even budge (because probably it was sleeping). I doubt the Saltese Flats have ever seen three people run so fast to their car. I could feel my heart racing for the next two hours, my whole body was jumpy and unsettled. And everywhere I looked, I swear I saw snakes.
Few places have taught me as many humbling lessons in my life as the kids’ dentist office. It’s in this caterpillar and butterfly adorned setting that I have shed tears, asked for forgiveness, been extended forgiveness, lied about how often my kids floss and absolutely been caught in the act by the sight of their gums, held down a screaming child, consoled an anxious one, paid a whole lot of bills and generally questioned my parental aptitude more than once.
It’s been a journey, as one might say. And certainly a chapter of motherhood I never expected, given the fact that taking your children to the dentist is like, the most normal thing in the world for parents. Yet for me, for us, it has been anything but normal. The Blackburn Kids go to the Dentist™ has become its own saga in our lives.
The reasons for that are many: six kids collectively have a lot of teeth, we eat a good bit of ice cream around here, and should you have the great fortune of being a parent yourself, you know that there are many nights when bedtime cannot come soon enough and perhaps some of those teeth don’t get brushed as well as they should? I cannot confirm nor deny this happening in our home. But the more pressing–more stressful factor, I should say–is autism.
Because when Autism has to go to the dentist, it reacts like it saw a snake in the hallway.
We’ve worked closely with our incredible dentist for the last five years on getting Cannon acclimated to visits. We schedule three “happy visits” in the weeks leading up to every cleaning, where Cannon gets to take everything at his own pace, play with the water and suction brush, look at his teeth in that tiny round mirror, and put his bib on as a cape. The goal is to have him leave the office “happy” so that the next time he comes, he won’t feel so anxious and will, ideally, let the staff do their cleaning and exam.
Thus far, no dice.
Cannon loves happy visits, he’d play with the suction tool all day. But he’s not taking the bait on getting to a full cleaning. For that, we still need general anesthesia.
This week was our half-yearly check up, and as I expected, our dearly beloved Dr. Molly came within three feet of Cannon with her cleaning tools, and he saw a snake and wanted to flee the area. I can’t say for sure he feared for his life but he for sure feared for his mouth, because he doesn’t want anyone near it with sharp tools. For twenty minutes, long past even wishing he would let them actually clean his teeth, I tried everything I could think of to just get him to hold still long enough for Dr. Molly to take a look inside. Finally I told him he can’t go swimming at Papa’s house unless he let Dr. Molly look at his teeth, and that was just enough motivation for him to step forward and open his mouth one inch for fourteen seconds. Still, when your dentist is a wizard, she can count teeth and check for any major problems in that amount of time.
Praise God in heaven, no major problems in view at the moment.
But as Dr. Molly was taking her gloves off, I brought up what I have been worried about for the last two years, since his adult teeth have started coming in, let’s call it, less than straight: orthodontia.
The thought of doing an orthodontic treatment plan of any kind with my precious boy is my own snake in the hallway moment. And we all know how I react to those.
Is there even an orthodontist who will do general anesthesia? Is it ethical to put a child to sleep only to have him wakeup with an extraordinary amount of metal in his mouth? What if he starts stemming on the hardware on his teeth and rips it out? Will he do permanent damage to his adult teeth? We can hardly brush well enough without braces, how will we keep his teeth clean with them? What about abrasions and abscesses and pain he will not be able to fully communicate to me? How will this even be possible for a boy with Cannon’s unique brand of autistic symptoms?
Will we survive this?
Is this snake, you know, the one that will really get us?
I fired off questions and fears and looked at her with wide eyes, and because I suppose I have been operating under the assumption that all “good” parents who live in the privileged West get their kids with less than perfect teeth braces, I honestly expected her to give me a plan I hadn’t thought of. I was waiting, hoping, for the news of some special device that straightens teeth for nonverbal kids with profound sensory issues and stemming behaviors, who won’t open their mouth for the dentist but somehow can work through twelve to eighteen months of orthodontia just swimmingly.
Instead, Dr. Molly put her hand on my knee, and in her characteristic kind and gentle manner, smiled and said, “Katie, I think in this case, there is really nothing wrong with crowded teeth.” (1)
And in that moment, I laughed an audible exhale of relief, and I realized the snake is harmless.
I have been so anxious even thinking about braces for Cannon for so long. I have lost sleep over how we would do this for him, especially as I have watched what his big sister has begun to do for her orthodontic needs. The invisible stressor and fear of this future process—not to mention the ridiculous assessment of my parenting I fear people will make based on my child’s teeth—lives in my mind right next door to wherever it is I keep the feeling of dread stored; because the former never visits without the latter. And here, my saint of a dentist, who fully grasps what we are navigating and weighing here, she was freeing me of something I stood frozen in fear over. I wanted to tackle her in a hug.
“Let’s just keep his teeth as clean and healthy as we possibly can for now. And you never know Katie, maybe in a few years when he’s grown and matured he could handle something. We will cross that bridge later. For now, I don’t think you need to carry this.”
I don’t need to carry this.
All parents of a child with a disability—all parents of any child, in fact—know there’s a lot in this world to be afraid of. There are plenty of dangerous snakes out there. But this one, ah, what unspeakable relief to know, this one does not want to hurt us. We can just walk right past it. I know that won’t be true for everything we encounter with our boy, but right now, a step forward with confidence, and the permission to take that step, is a grace.
And it’s grace we have to store up for the things we can’t just walk past.
For now, we will all be ok with a bit of crowded teeth.