If you spend any amount of time with the parent of a child with a disability you’ll quickly discover that even the small things that most of us don’t give a second thought about can be a major endeavor for them. Everything takes longer to complete. Everything their child needs costs more. Everything takes more patience. Everything is more complicated.
It’s no wonder that parents of a child with autism have rates of PTSD that are three times higher than parents of typically developing children. These parents expect extra challenges everyday but a visit to the dental office doesn’t have to be one of them.
I recently had the pleasure of chatting with one of the pioneers of dental care for special needs populations, Dr. Steven Perlman. Along with awards and accolades too numerous to list here, a few of his great accomplishments include his co-writing the book Treating the Dental Patient with a Developmental Disorder, and founding Special Olympics Special Smiles, an oral health initiative for the athletes of Special Olympics International. He has devoted much of his 40-year career to the treatment of children and adults with physical and intellectual disabilities. (You can listen in on our conversation here.)
Dr. Perlman’s passion for improving dental care for people with disabilities is simply contagious! He and I serve together on the Board of Directors for Project Accessible Oral Health (PAOH,) an organization that is working to create a world where people with disabilities have equal access to quality oral health care. But the reality right now is that dental care is the number one unmet healthcare need for the 61 million people–including 7.2 million children–who live with a disability.
PAOH, along with the American Academy of Developmental Medicine and Dentistry (AAMDM) are removing the silos between medicine and dentistry to take care of the whole individual, and are creating opportunities to collaborate and better serve those with exceptional needs.
These organizations have opened doors for America’s ToothFairy to provide essential resources to clinics and facilities that are taking on patients with disabilities and providing exceptional care–but we know we have to do more. We’re looking to expand our Special Kids Program and focusing on creating resources for dental professionals, parents, caregivers, and young patients with autism. By creating resources to help improve their home care, we can ultimately create better oral health outcomes for these kids that will help them succeed in other areas of their lives.
1. Make it a goal to treat more patients with disabilities.
With the incidence of children with disabilities skyrocketing, this truly is every healthcare providers problem to address–dental care providers included. Yes, there are challenges associated with providing dental care for exceptional patients but there’s a huge reward too. Providing care means the world to their caregivers and parents and truly has an impact on their lives. As Dr. Perlman told me, the way you learn how to care for patients with exceptional healthcare needs is to simply jump in and do it.
“You don't learn anything until you do it yourself,” he said. “And everybody's going to have failures, but they'll have wins too. And it's a learning curve. The more patients with disabilities you see, the more success you'll have.”
According to Dr. Perlman, 90% of people with disabilities could be mainstreamed through any office with the most minor modifications. Another 5% may need some form of sedation, medical immobilization, or protective stabilization. But operating room utilization should not be more than one to 2% of the whole population.
2. Engage with POAH and AADMD to learn more about treating this important population and advocating for policy changes.
3. Support the Special Kids Program of America’s ToothFairy to help us create resources that benefit safety-net dental clinics that serve the special needs community as well as parents and caregivers to improve home care.
4. Encourage dental schools to prepare dental students for working with patients with disabilities and champion inclusive, accessible dentistry for all.
5. If you feel unequipped to work with this population, volunteer at events that cater to people with disabilities.
On a personal note, I can honestly say that my experiences volunteering with the Special Olympics Healthy Athlete Program have been some of the most rewarding of my career. There's certain challenges in trying to find the best ways to help this population, but it's worth it in the end. You can really, truly impact someone's life, as well as the lives of those individuals that care for that person. Because they're often frustrated and fighting that fight alone, and it can be a lonely ride. So it's a wonderful gift for them when we can remove another barrier that is making their lives harder than it has to be.