Byline: Geraldine A. Collier
There's nothing about children and adults with special needs that excludes them from needing a cavity filled or a tooth pulled, but not that long ago, any dental problem would mean a trip to a Boston hospital where they would be anesthetized so a dentist could do his job without having to work with patients who might be less than compliant.
That scenario has changed somewhat, with more dentists in general practice welcoming those with special needs, but those with intellectual or developmental disabilities, autism or autism spectrum -- for example, Asperger's syndrome -- still may have difficulty finding a dentist who is willing to take them on as patients.
"It's a population that is better served now than before, as far as children go, but there's a big drop-off in finding dentists for adults,'' said Richard K. Fleming, adjunct associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Massachusetts Medical School and associate professor of exercise and health sciences at UMass Boston.
With the single goal of opening up access to dentistry for individuals with special needs, two different projects are well underway at the Eunice Kennedy Shriver Center, part of the UMass Medical School's Commonwealth Medicine division.
A two-year grant from the National Institutes of Health has enabled the Shriver Center, in partnership with Praxis, Inc., an educational technology company, and the Department of Exercise and Health Sciences at UMass Boston to develop two online courses for dentists, dental hygienists and students in those fields to make them more aware of the special needs population, the situations that might arise and how to adjust their techniques to make the visit go smoother for everyone.
The Shriver Center has also received a three-year grant from the Centers for Disease Control National Center for Birth Defects and Developmental Disability to fund a project to identify the techniques most effective for improving the oral health of individuals with special needs.
With the NIH funds, the two-hour online courses -- think video documentaries -- have been developed that include advice from three main groups, according to Melissa Maslin, co-manager for the dentistry video project.
"We have dentists and dental hygienists who have expertise in treating patients with disabilities, a couple of patients with intellectual or development disabilities and a couple who have autism or autism spectrum disorders, and then their caregivers...