Patients with Special Needs | MouthHealthy - Oral Health Information from the ADA

Patients with Special Needs

A young boy smiling while at the dentist.

Patients with special needs require unique consideration when receiving dental treatment due to physical, medical, developmental or cognitive conditions. This can include people with Autism Spectrum Disorder, Alzheimer’s disease, Down syndrome, spinal cord injuries and other conditions or injuries that can make standard dental procedures more difficult.

Dental risk factors and barriers

Dental care may be an unmet need in children and adults with disabilities.

Patients with special needs might be at a greater risk for tooth decay due to:

  • oral hygiene not being a priority
  • difficulty with toothbrushing
  • increased risk of diet- and nutrition-related problems
  • sugary medications
  • dry mouth (medication side effect)

Patients with special needs might face barriers to care due to:

  • the struggle to find a dental provider willing to treat them
  • lack of provider training and equipment needed to care for them
  • the prioritization of medical health over dental health, either by the patient or the patient’s caregiver
  • the financial cost

Additionally, the dental benefits provided for those with Medicaid, as well as the availability of dentists, may vary from state to state.

The dentist’s role

While many dentists can accommodate patients with special needs, they may still face challenges if a patient is unable to behaviorally tolerate care, follow instructions or transfer to a dental chair. Some dentists focus on meeting the needs and working with the limitations of special needs patients. This is known as special care dentistry. Facilities that offer special care dentistry often have specialized dental chairs to better accommodate patients.

If you, your child or someone you care for has special needs, talk with your dentist to discuss options. Inform your dentist of special health care needs, including any sensitivities to touch, light or sound. To improve the dental experience, request appointments at quieter times or ask for a private exam room. Dental practices are required to give reasonable accommodations to people with disabilities.

If you would like to find a dentist who specializes in special needs dental care, the Special Care Dentistry Association has a database to search in your area. If you can’t afford treatment, apply for help at Dental Lifeline Network.

Caregivers can also read The Caregiver’s Guide to Dental Health for mouth care tips and steps.