Telegram & Gazette: Shriver Center projects aim to improve dental care for those with disabilities

April 29, 2015

Dentists in general practice are taking on more patients with special needs, but those with intellectual or developmental disabilities may still have difficulty finding dentists to treat them. Two Eunice Kennedy Shriver Center projects aim to change that by training dentists how to care for this population and researching the most effective treatment techniques, according to an article in the Telegram & Gazette April 29.

"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," Richard K. Fleming, adjunct associate professor of psychiatry at UMass Medical School and associate professor of exercise and health sciences at UMass Boston, told the Telegram & Gazette.

The Shriver Center, part of UMass Medical School’s Commonwealth Medicine division, has received two grants for the work on oral health. A grant from the National Institutes of Health, in partnership with Praxis, Inc., has enabled the Shriver Center to develop two online dental courses for dentists, dental hygienists and students to show them patients with intellectual and developmental disabilities can be treated in a general practice with some modifications. The Centers for Disease Control National Center for Birth Defects and Developmental Disability has given the Shriver Center a grant to determine the most effective techniques for improving oral health for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

One of the video courses is geared toward individuals with intellectual disabilities, while the other focuses on those with developmental disabilities, such as autism and autism spectrum disorder, who may have problems with sensory stimuli.

“Of course, a dental office for anybody is kind of a sensory overload,” Helen Hendrickson, a project director at the Shriver Center who co-managed the online video courses, told the Telegram & Gazette. “However, for an autistic individual, having a light shone in their eyes, hearing the buzz of the drill, tasting dental paste, having tools thrust into their mouth: all can be overwhelming.” 

Much of the information on dental problems of individuals with special needs comes from the health screening required for participation in the Special Olympics.

“That screening may be the first time a dentist has looked inside their mouth,” Alexandra Bonardi, clinical assistant professor in UMass Medical School’s Family Medicine and Community Health, who worked on the CDC project on Oral Health Surveillance/Disparities, told the Telegram & Gazette.

Dentists, dental hygienists and physicians helping with the CDC project on Oral Health Surveillance/Disabilities reviewed 4,000 articles for good oral health practices before paring them to about 125 evidence-based articles that are undergoing a final review.