Dental etiquette for the patient with special needs

Feb 13th, 2012

By Niki Henson, RDA, AS

A mother whispers to herself as she prepares her child for his first trip to the dentist. Her child is 3 and still has no signs of teeth. She is nervous on multiple levels — she wonders how the child will behave in this new environment, and how the dental staff will look at her child.

Will they find my son is missing his teeth, in addition to the other medical and mental problems he has already been diagnosed with, she wonders? Her stress mounts. She arrives at the dental office — where she already has a relationship because she has been a patient there herself — with an instinctively protective attitude.

After signing in, the mother and son attempt to relax in the reception area until they are called for their turn. The dental assistant opens the door to the stress-filled environment, and the mother rolls her son’s wheelchair into the operatory. The mother picks up her son and gently sits him down in the dental patient chair for radiographs, her pulse and blood pressure rising as her son’s face changes to a fearful expression. The boy refuses the radiographs, even after repeated attempts and gentle persuasion. When the dentist arrives to help, the child begins to scream in terror upon seeing another white jacket. He refuses again, and is subsequently dismissed. The mother now must begin the search for anyone who can help her son, who still needs dental care.

This story is not fiction; it was my reality just 13 short years ago. My son, who at the age of 3 had still not cut his first tooth, was using a wheelchair, was non-verbal, was terrified of anyone in a lab coat, and was dismissed from the dental office when they were not able to take his radiographs. Although it was a terrifying day for my son Dustyn, it was a worse day for me. All my dental knowledge, all my loving support, and every bit of encouragement I could offer didn’t seem to make any difference.

My child was facing a common problem many people face — access to care. People with special needs, no matter if they are physical or intellectual disabilities, still need quality dental care. They may take more time, need more assistance in many stages of the appointment, and require a special measure of patience; however, they are worth the additional effort. With proper training and a few inexpensive tools, your dental practice can widen its scope of practice and accept a variety of patients you never knew would be so rewarding to treat.

In my new course, “Dental Etiquette for Patients with Special Needs,” participants will explore a variety of classifications of disabilities, the modifications that could be made for those classifications, a general guide to help the dental team know when to treat and when to refer a patient to a specialist, and an array of tips for inexpensive accommodations that will dramatically improve the level of comfort and care during dental procedures.

If you are interested in booking this program, please contact Nancy Wendt at The course is available in a two- or three-hour lecture and a three-hour workshop that uses role-playing, training with tools to assist patients who have special needs, a list of resources for additional assistance, regulatory considerations, and additional products for unique situations.

Niki Henson, RDA, AS, is an international dental speaker who has been teaching dentists, hygienists, and dental assistants on a variety of topics ranging from clinical fabrication of provisionals and tissue conditioning, to infection control protocol assessments and inventory management. She is now opening her heart to combine her personal experiences (she has two children with unique special needs) with her professional expertise in this new program. Hear the deep-seated emotions, the wisdom from her advocacy experience, and the wide array of tips and accommodations that will help improve access to care for patients with special needs, while touching your heart and improving your dental practice.

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