Faculty / Staff Resources Student Resources
University of Southern California
University of Southern California
USC Chan Division of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy
USC Chan Division of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy
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Sensory Adapted Dental Environments to Enhance Oral Care for Children with Autism

SIEFL Core ⟩ SADE Lab ⟩

Principal Investigator: Sharon Cermak EdD, OTR/L, FAOTA

Co-Investigator (USC): Jose Polido; Marian Williams; Michael Dawson; Christianne Lane

Consultant: Joel Hay (USC); Michele Shapiro (Beit Issie Shapiro, Israel)

Sep 2011 – Aug 2015

Total funding


The goal of this research project is to collect information that will support a later clinical trial on the effectiveness of a specially adapted dental environment for children who have difficulty tolerating oral care in the dental clinic. Within this project, two groups of children will be studied: children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) and typically developing children, including those who are over-reactive to sensory stimulation. Commonly, such children exhibit anxiety and negative behavioral reactions when confronted with experiential aspects of dental visits such as exposure to bright fluorescent lighting, touch in or around the mouth, or the texture and smell of various oral care products. In the grant, we will pilot test a sensory adapted dental environment (SADE) that has a strong potential to reduce anxiety and behavioral problems among the targeted groups of children. The SADE intervention includes such adaptations as dimmed lighting, exposure to soothing music, and application of a special vest which provides deep pressure sensations that are calming. If our preliminary assessment produces promising results, we later plan to more comprehensively test the intervention in a full-scale randomized clinical trial.

Research participants will be 40 ethnically diverse children aged 6-12 years, 20 with ASD and 20 who are typically developing. Each child will undergo two dental cleanings four months apart: dental cleaning in a standard dental environment, and dental cleaning in the sensory adapted environment. For each group of children (i.e., ASD and typically developing), the two conditions will be compared in their effects on anxiety and negative behavioral reactions, as measured by videotape coding, psychophysiological indices, and various rating scales.

Because the planned research will contribute to safer, more efficient, less costly treatment, it has the potential to revolutionize clinic-based dental care for the growing population of children with ASD, as well as for typically developing children who have dental anxieties. The potential cost-savings and contribution to child comfort are dramatic, as potentially more than one-fourth of all children may benefit.


Type Source Number Amount Period
Federal National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research (NIDCR) 5R34DE022263-02 $296,952 Sep 2012 – Aug 2015
Federal NIDCR 1R34DE022263-01 $234,424 Sep 2011 – Aug 2012