Clinic expands dental services for special-needs patients

The staff of a newly expanded dental clinic at Orange Grove Center hopes to bring much-needed dental care to an underserved population: people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

People with these conditions, such as autism and mental retardation, desperately need access to dental services, but many dentists "don't know how to deal with them," said Leslie Smith, marketing coordinator at Orange Grove.

"They typically want to sedate our clients, because they can be difficult to handle," she said.

With the help of a $100,000 grant from the Tennessee Council on Developmental Disabilities, Orange Grove recently overhauled its 30-year-old dental clinic and hired its first full-time staff dentist in years.

Dr. Kristin Compton, one of the few dentists in the nation who has specialized training in special-needs dentistry, completed a fellowship in the techniques at the Underwood and Lee Clinic in Louisville, Ky.

DENTAL CAREThe dental clinic at Orange Grove, a private nonprofit organization, is open to anyone with intellectual or developmental disabilities. For more information, call 423-629-1451, ext 2464.

For many patients -- particularly those with autism who struggle to adjust to the unexpected and are sensitive to stimuli such as light and sound -- a dentist who takes the time to explain what's going to happen during a dental procedure can make a big difference in their comfort level, Dr. Compton said.

Some patients have physical challenges that make it hard for them to sit for a long time or remain still during a dental procedure, she said.

"It may make dentistry a little difficult, but those are things we can work around," she said.

The new clinic is equipped with a jukebox and DVD players to entertain and calm patients undergoing treatment. Some patients choose to hold onto a plush, stuffed animal during their treatment, she said.

On Monday, Orange Grove day-patient Donna Cox, 46, got a routine cleaning while some of her favorite tunes from the '70s blasted from the jukebox. Ms. Cox has autism and mental retardation.

Her mother, Claudette Cox, who works at Orange Grove, said dental cleanings for her daughter go more smoothly with clinicians who are trained to work with people with special needs.

"The music has helped tremendously to calm her," she said. "She's very comfortable here."

Orange Grove's clinic also is now a clinical training site for students in Chattanooga State Community College's programs in dental assisting and dental hygiene. A number of students already have completed their day-long clinical training at the site, said Hartly Varnell, director of the dental hygiene program at Chattanooga State.

"What we try to do is expose our students to diversity in needs," he said. In dentistry, people with special needs historically have been "kind of an untouched group, mostly out of our own ignorance," Mr. Varnell said.

"This is something we plan to do with (Orange Grove) as long as they have a dentist in their program," he said.

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