How to Find the Right Dental Care for Your Child with Special Needs

When you have a child with special needs, chances are you have many concerns and issues to deal with, and it's likely that keeping up with dental appointments slips down your list of priorities. Yet for the sake of your child's dental and overall health, it's important to bring this issue back to the top of the list. Kim Varian, a registered dental hygienist with First Choice Dental Group, has cared for dental patients with special needs. She offers tips to make these appointments as positive an experience as possible for the patient and the family.

Varian suggests that if you are looking for a dental provider for your child with special needs, schedule a tour to familiarize the child with the clinic surroundings and the staff. Varian says, "The tour will give you a sense of the atmosphere and culture of the office, and the clinic should allow you to make this preliminary step." Aides often accompany the child on these tours as well. Varian also suggests scheduling appointments during "quiet" times, on slower days when the office is not as busy. While some families believe that looking for a pediatric dental specialist might be helpful, Varian says she's heard from some families that they've found pediatric dental settings to be over-stimulating for their child. She adds, "Make sure the clinic is willing to schedule enough appointment time to slowly introduce your child to the processes taking place. Sometimes, steps have to occur in intervals, with small breaks in between."

Varian explains that she works with parents to understand the verbal cues and communication tools they use to help their child cooperate. She says, "I try to find the right door in to help the child have a good experience. It's important not to push a child further than he or she is willing or able to go." Varian also works with parents to understand and address any sensitivities the child may have to sound, touch, or light. If needed, she works in dim lighting, provides headphones, or sometimes provides the child with a weighted vest to give the child a sense of comfort and security.

First Choice Dental dentist Dr. David Penwell echoes Varian's advice about following cues from the child when it comes to pace. "There's no rush from our perspective," says Penwell. "Our goal is to develop a successful relationship for the long haul. We may spend your child's first appointment or two just getting comfortable with our team and our office. That helps us establish trust and earn the right to provide more clinical care at their next appointment. Your goal as a parent should be to find a dentist who's willing to pace himself or herself based on your child's needs."

Dr. Penwell also says that as a dentist, providing great care for children with special needs requires good communication and a partnership with parents. "Parents of children with special needs are their child's best advocate. When we can work with you to understand your child's needs, we're able to deliver a better dental experience."

Varian adds that it is essential to share your specific concerns with the provider. Whether it's regarding the introduction of fluoride, the use of flavored polish, filling or sealant materials, or medications affecting your child's teeth - these concerns should be addressed and respected. One mom Annette, whose eight year old son has autism emphasizes this point. "My son cannot metabolize fluoride and it is so important to have a dentist respect our concerns and wishes."

Kate is a mom who is co-coordinator with Annette of the Madison chapter of Talk About Curing Autism (TACA). She explains how her son wouldn't open his mouth at previous dentist appointments. "There is a lot of anxiety associated with going to the dentist or the hair dresser," she explains. "We had so many concerns about his teeth and needed to find an environment where he felt comfortable." Kate adds, "Our hygienist Kim allowed him to touch the surroundings, spray the water gun, and feel in control of the situation, which is very significant."

Over the years Varian has been rewarded by the progress her patients have made. "It's most important," she says, "to find a provider who will take the time to listen, to provide compassion, and to go the extra mile to meet your child's unique needs."