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Autism Awareness Month Feature: Dental Desensitization Program Developed at CREC River Street School is Growing

Seven years ago, behavior analysts and nurses at the CREC River Street School Autism Program at the Birken Campus developed a Dental Desensitization Program to help a child with autism who was unable to sit through routine dental visits without being restrained or sedated.

The program succeeded in teaching the child to tolerate exams without behaviors, and she began visiting the dentist on a more regular basis. Since then, the program has grown to include more and more children, a simulated dental suite and partnerships with multiple organizations around the state.

This procedure, developed in 2010, utilized a comprehensive strategy that breaks down the dental routine into very small steps and reinforces toleration to each step. When the child exhibited avoidance behaviors, we reinforced her for completing previously mastered steps and then reintroduced an easier version of the avoided step.

Initially, staff used space in the school nurse’s office as a practice area. Over time and with donations from community dentists, a simulated dental suite with dental chair and modified dental instruments was completed.

Also, we developed a relationship with the Dental Coordinator for the CT Department of Developmental Services and directors of the Dental Hygiene program at Lincoln College of New England – Southington Campus. Students in the Associate Degree program in dental hygiene travel to our school, weekly, to learn about our strategy and work with our children. Through this collaboration, our children are provided exposure to health care professionals and the dental hygiene students gain knowledge and practical experience that can transfer to helping children with autism in community dental offices.

Recently, we partnered with dental students and professors at the University of Connecticut School of Dental Medicine (UConn) and the UConn Special Care Dentistry Interest Group. The students provide generalization opportunities for our children at the UConn Kane Street Special Care Connection Program in West Hartford. These visits allow our children to experience the sights, smells, and sounds of the actual dental office setting. Our partnerships with Lincoln College and UConn have enhanced learning for our children and increased the likelihood of their success during their own community dental visits.

Lastly, we presented our program at annual conferences including the Berkshire Association for Behavior Analysis and Therapy (BABAT) and the Connecticut Association for Behavior Analysis (CTABA). Recently, the CT Department of Public Health invited us to present information about our program to dental hygienists servicing children with special needs in local school districts. We are very excited about all of our opportunities and hope to continue to promote better dental health outcomes for children with autism.

For information about our program, please contact Dianne Soucy, MA, BCBA and Jocelyn Pardi ,RN @ (860) 727-8481.

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