CAMILLUS, N.Y. (NCC News) — Leanne Morphet began taking her son, Zach Morphet, to the dentist when he was 2 years old. Zach received a tuberculosis shot a few years later, and that started a trend of doctor and dental visits becoming more difficult for him. He has autism and is nonverbal, and Morphet believes the nurse who administered the shot didn’t have much experience with children with special needs.
While at dentist appointments, Zach would move repeatedly and become anxious to the point where Morphet would have to help hold him down.
“He would be soaking wet from sweat and then I would be soaking wet from sweat too,” Morphet said. “It was a level of anxiety.”
The first dental hygienist who worked with Zach was new to working with special needs individuals but got to know him well. Morphet said the hygienist had patience when working with him.
Zach practiced dental care at home and participated in Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA) therapy during that time to help him comply more with having his teeth brushed and flossed. Morphet said at-home practice and ABA therapy were used in hopes to help Zach transition smoother into dental visits as he got older. Although, the transition didn’t go smoothly as Zach reached his teenage years.
“We were lucky that he didn’t get aggressive,” Morphet said. “The flailing that he would do, he could have gotten hurt or he could have hurt someone.”
It got to the point where the dental office had to use a papoose when treating Zach. A papoose secures patients to a dental chair to keep them from moving.
“Being restrained was making him anxious,” Morphet said.
Morphet met Alicia Morris, a Camillus Dental Associates hygienist, who introduced her to the dental office’s Open House Program. The program, which is free, acclimates special needs individuals to dentistry. Special needs individuals are shown how to properly brush their teeth and how dental tools are used when having a full cleaning. Sensory toys are also used to keep the individuals calm during their session.
“We’ve had tremendous success,” Morphet said. “We went from him not wanting to sit in the chair, to him hopping right in.”
Zach, who is now 14, has been a part of the Open House Program for about two months, and he works on a new goal every week. Goals can include simply sitting in the dental chair to counting an individual’s teeth using a dental tool. Morphet said he has almost met all of his goals.
“I think in one or two more attempts, we’ll be able to do a full cleaning without him having to use the papoose,” Morphet said.
While the program aims to ease special need individuals into proper dental care, Morris and Dr. Stephanie Cavallaro, the dental practice owner, hopes the program also eases parents’ worries. Morris believes bad dentist experiences can hinder parents of special needs children from seeking dental care as regularly as they should.
“With the dental program, there’s no treatment or diagnosis,” Morris said. “You just come in, have fun, we go over a visual schedule and we play with sensory toys.”
Morris said Zach and other special needs individuals get more comfortable weekly, and she hopes the program spreads to other dental offices in the future.