Tips for Dentists: Caring for a Patient with Special Needs

Author: Virginia Cunningham

Virginia Cunningham

Virginia Cunningham is a freelance health writer in the Los Angeles who works in collaboration with NorthWest to share her knowledge on all things health. As a mother of a special needs child herself, she believes it is crucial for any business to accommodate the needs of every individual, regardless of their situation.
12.04.13 / 12:56 pm

Let’s face it, most of us have a rational fear of going to our semi-annual dentist appointments. Cavities, the need for braces, filling molars – nearly any dental procedure, even something as simple as a cleaning, tend to be quite uncomfortable. And for children with special needs, a trip to the dentist can be extremely frightening, particularly if they have never stepped foot into a dentist’s office before.

The chair can be intimidating by itself, and add those scary-looking tools and strangers into the equation – it may feel more like a haunted house to them more than a friendly environment.

When I first took my son, who has cerebral palsy, to the dentist, I had never seen him so scared. While the entire staff was friendly and caring, he still had no idea what was really going on, and he clung to me tightly, not wanting to let go. I had to keep reassuring him that he was in a safe place, and that the strangers surrounding him were only there to help.

According to the 2010 US Census Bureau, nearly 19 percent of the non-institutionalized population of the United States had a disability. Approximately 12.6 percent had a severe disability. As such, there is likely a tremendous need in your area for dentists who can provide safe, low-stress care to special needs children.


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Visits to the dentist can be stressful for anyone, but for patients with special needs – and their parents – these necessary appointments can be especially anxiety inducing. As a dental professional, there are a number of things that you can do to help alleviate some of the tension for everyone involved.

1. Ensure that your location is ADA accessible.

My son requires a wheelchair to get around, so that was one of the first things I looked for when choosing a dentist for him.

According to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), it is against the law to discriminate against any individual who seeks access to services. This may mean making some simple adjustments to the physical layout of your office.

For example, if there are stairs leading up to the front door, you will want to highly consider adding a ramp for easier wheelchair access. Additionally, ensure that there are handrails in hallways and grab-bars in the restrooms, and arrange furniture in every room in such a way that it won’t interfere with wheelchairs or crutches.

2. Arrange a pre-appointment consultation, either in person or by phone, with the patient’s caregivers and family members.

Discuss, in advance, what can be done to help ease the patient’s discomfort or alleviate specific fears he/she is likely to have. Verify the mobility level of the individual in question: does he get around relatively easily on his own? Will she need help when transitioning from wheelchair to dental chair?

Check with the parents/caregivers to determine whether they have special concerns of their own about the equipment or methods that will be used. Encourage family members to ask honest, straightforward questions. If possible, fill out necessary paperwork in advance over the phone, or ask the family to complete the documents and mail them to you.

Since my son requires a wheelchair, I was relieved to find that my dentist’s team did everything in their power to make sure he would have the most comfortable experience possible.

3. Schedule a pre-appointment tour.

Ask the family to bring your patient in for a tour of your office prior to the appointment date. Allow the child to meet the staff that will be doing the work and familiarize them with the layout of the office and the equipment you’ll be using. It may be useful to do this tour outside of normal business hours in order to help maintain a calm and relaxing atmosphere.

This is one of the things that I didn’t really think about before, which now I would have found to be very helpful in my situation. The second time I brought my son back to the office for his actual appointment, he seemed more comfortable because he had already been there before.

4. Invite the parents/caregiver to be present during the procedure.

The sights, sounds and even smells in a dental office are likely to be strange and possibly frightening to some special needs patients. Having a parent or other caregiver in the room during the appointment with the patient may be a simple way to help the individual feel safe and supported.

Being there for my son during this new experience for him truly helped him feel less stressed. He’s a trouper, that’s for sure, and I was even able to hold his hand during the entire length of the appointment.

5. Take your time.

As previously discussed, your patient may be feeling a tremendous amount of tension about this new experience. Be prepared to adjust the pace at which you work and be conscious of the child’s reaction to the work you’re doing. If necessary, take frequent, short breaks.

Whenever I felt that my son was getting a bit anxious during the appointment, the dentist and her assistants jumped at the chance to give both us of some room before they returned to work.

A few simple changes can help make appointments with your special needs patients more pleasant, which will not only relieve the patient and his parents, but it will also ensure that you are able to do your job as a professional.


Virginia Cunningham

Virginia Cunningham is a freelance health writer in the Los Angeles who works in collaboration with NorthWest to share her knowledge on all things health. As a mother of a special needs child herself, she believes it is crucial for any business to accommodate the needs of every individual, regardless of their situation.

6 responses to “Tips for Dentists: Caring for a Patient with Special Needs”

  1. Excellent tips! I too see special needs patients on a regular basis because so many dentists in town just refuse to attend to their needs. I find it to be a great experience – the parents and the patients are always extremely grateful for our time and patience.

  2. Someone with special needs might require a little extra care in your office. You might want to schedule extra time for their appointment so you aren’t rushing through the appointment. Going to the dentist can be scary enough for anyone, and someone with special needs might need extra help to overcome that fear.

  3. Hey, thanks for the blog article.Really looking forward to read more. Much obliged. ekedcdgfdd

  4. I definitely agree when you said that getting to the dentist chair can be scary and intimidating for some people. My daughter, who is recovering from knee surgery, is scared of the dentist. Aside from asking permission to let her go around the clinic and know more about the dentist, is there a way for her to be calm before a dental operation?

  5. I like that you talked about how a pre-appointment tour is advisable. Like you said, this will be able to help the child be familiar with the place and the staff as well. I will suggest this to my sister because they found out that their son has a decaying tooth at the back of his mouth. It will be the first time they will take their son to a dentist, and they are worried if he might repel because he has mild autism.

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