According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, nearly 13 million children under age 18 have a chronic condition or disability. This represents 18 percent of our nation’s children and adolescents. Currently, 52 million Americans have some type of disabling condition, and 25 million Americans have a severe disability.
Special needs patients can be defined as children or adults with a chronic physical, developmental, behavioral or emotional condition that substantially limits one or more major life activity and who need dental or health services beyond what is generally required.
Pediatric dentists are the dental professionals of choice for children with special needs. Their education as specialists – two or more years beyond dental school – focuses on care for children including those with special needs. Almost all pediatric dentists (99.5 percent) report that they care for patients with special needs.
Pediatric dentists are not just for children. As a result of their experience and expertise in helping patients with special needs, they are often the best choice for the dental care of adults with special needs as well.
Some of the more common conditions that require special care in dentistry include Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, epileptic or seizure disorders, vision and hearing impairments, cleft lip/palate and other craniofacial conditions, and learning and developmental disabilities.
People with special needs are very diverse in terms of their oral health. Many people with special needs have the same oral health conditions as the rest of the population. Many others have conditions and disabilities that are associated with an increased risk for various oral health problems. Still other people with special needs begin with normal teeth and oral health, but suffer from more dental disease.
Why would a person with a disability be born with good oral health but suffer more dental problems? There are many reasons. Some disabilities interfere with the ability of the person to brush and floss on his own. Some children with special needs are on diets detrimental to dental health or may have difficulty clearing food from the mouth. Certain medications can lead to increased risk of dental disease. Finally, sometimes the time, energy and financial resources of the family are devoted to other more pressing health problems.
Special needs patients are less likely to visit a dentist regularly and are more likely to have missing teeth. Pediatric dentists, caregivers, support organizations, and patients with special needs must work together to improve access to preventive dental services and make every effort to restore teeth – not extract them
Decades ago, children with certain disabilities would have had little hope of reaching adulthood. Through medical advancements, children with severe health conditions are living longer than ever before. This success has created a new dental care crisis.
Each year, more than 100,000 children with disabilities graduate out of the comprehensive dental coverage provided for children through Medicaid. Unfortunately, Medicaid programs in most states offer limited dental services to adults. In fact, less than four percent of the money spent on dental care in our country is through government-supported programs. The AAPD strongly supports increased government funding for dental services for special needs citizens of all ages.
SPECIAL CONSIDERATIONS FOR SPECIAL CHILDREN
As a parent of a child with special needs, you may have concerns about your child’s tolerance of a dental visit.
Whatever your concerns, do not postpone preventive dentistry for your child. Pediatric dentists understand that each child is unique and may need extra care to feel comfortable during dental treatment. For example, one child might do great with positive communication, another might benefit from a body blanket to help control involuntary movements, and still another might need mild sedation to feel relaxed during treatment. Pediatric dentists stand ready with a variety of possible approaches; you can help select the approach that is best for the specific health and behavioral needs of your child.
HOW TO FIND A DENTIST FOR A CHILD OR ADULT WITH SPECIAL NEEDS
Visit the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry’s Web site for a pediatric dentist in your area, www.aapd.org.
Contact your local dental society and ask for a dentist with experience in treating special needs patients.