closeup of a blue and white toothbrush on blue backdrop

Toothbrush (Sensory) Nightmare – Autism & Toothbrushing

CW: Descriptions of toothbrushing and dental stories 

Today I managed to brush my teeth, with my electric toothbrush, for about ten seconds.

Now many of you are likely thinking to yourselves at this point that ten seconds is not nearly enough time to brush one’s mouth thoroughly, and I will admit that I would have loved to brush longer, but today ten seconds was a victory. 

I’m Autistic. A big part of that is altered sensory processing that can make sensations most people ignore entirely overwhelming. 

Some examples of overwhelming sensations (to me) include:

nail/toenail files, hair brushing as a child, many types of socks, tags in clothing, injections & blood draws, circulating air on my arms if it is below 80 degrees (or if my skin is wet), and tooth brushing.

We could go into each of these sensory tortures in detail. Still, toothbrushing is of particular annoyance because, for many years, my avoidance of this task has caused me harm and significant expense. 

The executive functioning aspect of why I don’t always do self-care tasks could be its own post (let me know if that interests you in the comments below), so I will not dive into that part today.

Unfortunately, not brushing my teeth frequently enough led me to lose several teeth in my mid-twenties. It was a painful and expensive lesson. 

These days, I try to take care of my teeth, making them a priority, because I know they won’t last otherwise, but sometimes the sensory aspect of brushing my teeth is something I literally cannot stomach. 

The texture, taste, and foam of the toothpaste may overwhelm me instantly, causing me to wretch violently almost the instant I place it into my mouth. 

If the toothpaste doesn’t get me, the back and forth filing motion may; this is why I have an electric toothbrush. The buzzing distracts from the bristly sensation on my teeth and gums. But, unfortunately, a standard toothbrush is entirely too much. 

If we woke up tomorrow and all the electric toothbrushes were gone, I would never brush my teeth again. I’d floss and use mouthwash, hoping to save my teeth, but I CANNOT stand the feeling of a non-electric toothbrush moving back and forth in my mouth. Just typing that gave me goosebumps. ICK.

Some mornings, when my sensory system is the most dysregulated, I know I will not be able to handle the minty foam drowning my senses and suffocating me until I’m dizzy and ill, so I don’t torture myself.

If I think I can take even a few seconds of the torture, I will do my best to quickly hit every tooth in my mouth and then, if I’ve made it so far, the parts of my tongue I can sometimes handle. 

Yesterday morning was not a tremendous sensory morning. I didn’t brush my teeth (but I did floss them and used mouthwash), so it was important I try today because with brushing teeth, I’ve found something is better than nothing. 

This morning I put the toothbrush in my mouth. I quickly got to each tooth, if only in quick passing, and then after about ten seconds, was overcome with the urge to gag. At that point, I promptly aborted the toothbrushing mission and began ejecting the toothpaste from my mouth. 

I didn’t get to my tongue, but I still consider this mission a victory. 

Maybe I’ll try again later after I drink my coffee (if I remember… executive functioning explained on another day.)

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With gratitude,

Lyric

5 thoughts on “Toothbrush (Sensory) Nightmare – Autism & Toothbrushing

  1. I’ve not had problems with brushing the old fashioned way, but it took me a while to get used to the electric toothbrush. Initially it was too much like having a dentist drill in my mouth, vibrating and rattling my brain. I’m glad for you that you found something that may help.

    I’m looking forward to hearing your take on executive functioning. Right now I’m avoiding sending emails to friends and doing other things that I need and want to do, but just aren’t doing.

  2. Hi! This post has been very illuminating for me, my son is autistic and he’s only 8, I struggled a lot to get him to brush his teeth, I thought it was laziness but now after reading this I think the issue is more complex than that. Fortunately, I shifted a few years ago to electronic toothbrush and it even had an app where he could play while brushing, it was very helpful during the transition. Now to make things even worse he has a device on his mouth to fix a lack of space, so I have to be even more careful with his hygiene to avoid bad breath or food getting stuck in there. It hasn’t been an easy road but at least reading your blog help me to be more patient and understanding with him. Thank you for taking the time to share this.

  3. Despite the ads showing a full brush of paste, it only takes a tiny amount to give enough to help the cleaning process. A tiny, wee bit of paste. I also add a shake of Baking Soda occasionally (which doesn’t taste good, but I got used to it).
    And if you can’t use a brush, another way to get the teeth cleaner is to put the paste on a soft cloth (with a tiny bit of paste) and use that to wipe over the teeth (especially the inner side). Or a finger with a mix of paste and backing soda (tiny bit).
    A lot of people have this problem, and the ones I know are the ones who grind their teeth, sleepwalk/talk, or similar. It’s the pressure on the teeth from the facial tension, so if you find a way to reduce that (please let me and everyone else know!), it may help.
    Good luck.

  4. OMG child. so very true. I own two electric toothbrushes, the one I bought last year after i forgot that I can’t tolerate electric toothbrushes … and the one I couldn’t find that I bought 5 years ago, that is still missing somewhere in the house. I don’t use either of them.

  5. Dry brushing might help? I don’t care for toothpaste so many times I just use the brush. I make sure that I use a fluoride mouthwash and call it good.

    Some studies (I saw headlines for on Facebook) said that dry brushers tend to brush longer.

    Just an idea you didn’t ask for. 🙂

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