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Caring Beyond Boundaries: Enhancing Dental Care for Individuals with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities

Miriam R. Robbins, DDS, MS

January 2024 Course - Expires Sunday, January 31st, 2027



Delivery of dental care for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD) can be hindered by a variety of challenges. While IDD encompass a wide spectrum of conditions that affect cognitive and adaptive functioning, individuals with IDD share some key common challenges with regard to oral health and dental care, such as communication barriers, behavioral issues, and barriers to accessing dental care, which contribute to oral health disparities. This article examines a specialized approach required for providing effective dental care to individuals with IDD. Recognizing the unique challenges faced by this population, dental professionals are called upon to develop a comprehensive skill set that combines clinical expertise with empathy and adaptability. By addressing the distinctive needs of these individuals, dental practitioners can contribute to improved oral health outcomes and foster a more inclusive and accommodating healthcare environment. The article outlines key strategies and considerations for delivering compassionate dental care to patients with IDD, emphasizing the importance of patient-centered communication, behavior management, and collaborative teamwork.

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The delivery of comprehensive dental care to individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD) presents a distinct set of challenges that require specialized attention and understanding from oral healthcare providers. Intellectual and developmental disabilities encompass a wide spectrum of conditions that generally start before the age of 18 years and that affect a person's cognitive and adaptive functioning. Conditions such as Down syndrome, autism spectrum disorders (ASD), and cerebral palsy fall under the umbrella of IDD. These and other IDD manifest in various ways, impacting communication, mobility, and daily living activities, and contribute to unique challenges in oral health and dental care.1,2 These challenges extend beyond traditional dental care concerns and require a comprehensive approach to address the unique needs of this population. Patients with cognitive impairments may have difficulties in understanding and following oral hygiene instructions, while communication barriers can hinder effective interaction with dental healthcare professionals.3 Behavioral aspects of IDD, such as resistance to dental procedures and sensory sensitivities, further complicate the delivery of care. Delivery of holistic and patient-centered dental care involves consideration of not only the patient's immediate dental needs but also the broader context of the individual's health, lifestyle, and support system. Development of personalized treatment plans that align with the unique circumstances and accommodation requirements of an individual with IDD is an essential component of the delivery of care.

Importance of Addressing Oral Health in Individuals With IDD

The oral health of individuals with IDD is a critical aspect of their overall well-being, affecting their quality of life and daily functioning.4 However, this population often experiences disparities in oral health outcomes compared with the general population. Factors such as communication difficulties, behavioral challenges, and limited access to care contribute to a higher prevalence of dental problems, including caries, periodontal disease, and oral infections.5,6Neglecting the oral health needs of people with IDD can lead to pain, discomfort, and systemic health issues for these individuals. Additionally, poor oral health can exacerbate existing challenges with regard to speech, nutrition, and social interactions, diminishing the individual's quality of life. Recognizing the significance of oral health for individuals with IDD is the first step toward the development of a specialized approach to dental care designed to overcome the barriers that they often face in accessing and receiving appropriate dental care.

Overview of the Unique Challenges of Dental Care Delivery for Individuals With IDD

Providing dental care for individuals with IDD can be complex owing to a variety of challenges that impact both the patients with IDD and their dental providers. Understanding and addressing these challenges is essential to ensure that dental care is not only accessible but also effective in promoting oral health within the IDD population.

Because the challenges in delivering dental care to individuals with IDD are multifaceted, a nuanced understanding of the diverse needs of these patients is needed. Key challenges include:

· Communication barriers. Individuals with IDD may experience difficulties in expressing their needs, sensations, or pain verbally, necessitating alternative communication methods.7

· Behavioral issues. Anxiety, sensory sensitivities, and resistance to unfamiliar stimuli can pose challenges during dental visits, requiring adaptive behavior management strategies.8

· Oral health disparities. Individuals with IDD often have limited access to care, ineffective oral health home-care practices, and diets high in cariogenic foods, requiring tailored preventive measures and personalized care plans.9 Issues such as transportation, financial constraints, difficulty in finding an accessible office, lack of training among dental providers in the provision of care for individuals with IDD, and a lower level of oral health literacy contribute to disparities in access to dental services for these patients.10

Communication Barriers in Dental Care for Individuals With IDD

One of the primary challenges in providing dental care to individuals with IDD is the presence of communication barriers. Individuals with IDD may face difficulties in expressing their dental needs, discomfort, or pain because of altered communication skills. They may rely on non-verbal communications such as facial expressions, gestures, or vocalizations that may require interpretation.11 Additionally, individuals with IDD may have difficulty understanding and following verbal instructions during dental procedures. This may complicate the diagnostic process and hinder the dental practitioner's ability to provide optimal care as well as contribute to increased anxiety in these patients.

Alternative Communication Methods

To overcome these challenges, dental practitioners can employ the following practical tools and strategies:

· Simplified language. Using clear, concise language, avoiding jargon and medical terminology, and breaking down information into understandable segments is essential for communicating with individuals with IDD, who may struggle with complex instructions.

· Visual supports. Visual aids, such as pictures, charts, videos, or social stories (a social learning tool using simple language and pictures to illustrate social situations), can enhance comprehension and help individuals with IDD understand the dental procedures and dental healthcare setting.12

· Augmentative and alternative communication (AAC). AAC methods, including communication boards, symbols, or electronic devices, provide individuals who are non-verbal or have limited verbal communication abilities with a means of expressing themselves.13,14

· Pre-visit communication. Providing information in advance about the dental visit allows individuals with IDD to be prepared for the dental care process and setting, reducing anxiety and ultimately enhancing communication during the appointment.

Person-Centered Communication

Person-centered communication involves tailoring interactions to the individual's unique communication style, preferences, and needs. Developing individualized communication plans based on the patient's preferences and abilities is an essential part of providing dental care to individuals with IDD. The following are useful approaches to help enhance person-centered communication:

· Talking directly to the patient. Even if a caregiver is in the room with the patient during the dental visit, all comments and questions should be directed to the patient. Be sensitive to the patient's comprehension abilities and tailor your speech accordingly-for example, by speaking in short sentences, asking Yes or No questions, and repeating questions.

· Engaging in active listening. Taking the time to listen actively and patiently and adjust communication strategies accordingly is paramount in fostering an environment of trust and cooperation.

· Respecting non-verbal cues. Individuals with IDD may communicate through non-verbal cues such as gestures or facial expressions. Dental healthcare professionals should be attentive to these cues and respond accordingly.15

· Demonstrating patience and empathy. Acknowledging the individual's feelings and respecting his or her autonomy is essential to building rapport. Patients with IDD should be involved in decision-making to the extent possible, taking into consideration the individual patient's preferences and choices.16

· Involving the caregivers. Involving the patient's caregivers or support persons in communication may provide the dental healthcare professional with valuable insights and support the patient's comfort and understanding. Regular communication with caregivers is integral for maintaining continuity of care. Dental providers should share relevant information about the patient's oral health, treatment plans, and strategies for home care as appropriate, both with the caregivers and the patient.

Behavioral Issues in Dental Care for Individuals With IDD

Behavioral issues in individuals with IDD can stem from various factors, including sensory sensitivities, communication difficulties, and anxiety related to unfamiliar environments. These challenges may manifest as anxiety or fear of dental settings, resistance to oral care procedures, or difficulty sitting still during appointments.17 Individuals with IDD may exhibit behaviors such as aggression, self-stimulation, or withdrawal during dental visits, making it challenging to perform necessary procedures. Managing these behaviors requires a patient-centered, adaptive approach that prioritizes the individual's comfort and emotional well-being. Understanding the specific triggers and stressors for each individual and developing personalized strategies that incorporate positive reinforcement, desensitization techniques, and a calming environment are essential for successfully managing behavioral challenges during dental appointments.18

Strategies for Managing Behavioral Challenges

Dental professionals can employ a range of strategies to effectively manage behavioral challenges and create a positive dental experience, including the following:

· Pre-visit communication. Establishing communication before the dental visit can be an essential part of a successful dental visit. Sending information to patients and caregivers in advance, which could include visual aids or social stories, can help prepare individuals for the upcoming appointment. Virtual tours of the dental office can be used to familiarize the patient with the environment, minimizing surprises and reducing anxiety.

· Sensory-friendly environment. Creating a sensory-friendly dental environment involves minimizing stimuli that may trigger sensory sensitivities, such as bright lights or loud noise.19 Adjustments such as using dimmed lights or black-out shades, providing noise-canceling headphones, or introducing calming sensory stimuli can create a more comfortable atmosphere for patients with sensory processing issues.

· Behavior guidance techniques. Utilizing behavior guidance techniques, such as positive reinforcement, distraction, modeling, and tell-show-do, can help build trust and foster cooperation during dental procedures.20 Creating positive associations with dental care contributes to greater patient cooperation.21

· Gradual desensitization. Gradual desensitization techniques can help individuals with IDD become accustomed to dental procedures over time. Incremental exposure to dental instruments, starting with less invasive interactions, can build tolerance and reduce any anxiety that the patient may feel about dental visits.

· Positive reinforcement. Positive reinforcement is a powerful tool in managing behavioral challenges. Praising and rewarding cooperative behavior during dental appointments can help create a positive association with dental care, encouraging individuals with IDD to participate more willingly.

· Communication strategies. Implementing effective communication strategies, including clear and concise instructions, visual supports, and alternative communication methods, enhances understanding and reduces anxiety for the patient.

· Behavior support plans. Individuals with IDD often will already have behavior support plans to aid them with other activities.22 Collaborating with behavioral specialists to modify individualized behavior support plans can be helpful. These plans outline strategies for managing specific behaviors and may include techniques such as visual schedules, token systems, and sensory accommodations.

· Pharmacological interventions. In some cases, pharmacological interventions such as sedation and general anesthesia may need to be considered to safely deliver care. Both entail inherent risks and may yield unpredictable outcomes in this population The decision to use one of these modalities must prioritize the importance of selecting the most suitable approach for each individual and should only be made after a through consideration of associated risks and benefits. Decision to provide care under sedation or general anesthesia should be accompanied by the development of a long-term plan aimed at maintaining the individuals' oral health in the future without the use of pharmacologic intervention. This should include an intensive prevention plan to reduce the incidence of new dental disease requiring surgical intervention.23, 24

Contributing Factors of Oral Health Disparities in Individuals With IDD

Individuals with IDD are prone to higher rates of oral health problems, including caries, periodontal disease, and untreated dental conditions.6 Factors contributing to these disparities include the following:

· Difficulty in performing oral hygiene. Challenges in motor skills or coordination may impede individuals with IDD in performing effective oral hygiene practices.25

· Medication side effects. Some medications prescribed to individuals with IDD may contribute to xerostomia (dry mouth), increasing the risk of caries and periodontal disease.

· Dietary considerations. Special dietary needs or preferences may influence the intake of sugary or acidic foods, contributing to oral health problems.

· Oral health literacy. Failure to recognize the importance of good oral health and challenges in understanding oral care instructions and accessing regular dental check-ups can result in inadequate hygiene practices, delayed dental interventions, and heightened susceptibility to oral health issues. Tailoring communication strategies, utilizing visual aids and adaptive educational approaches, and promoting caregiver education are crucial steps in enhancing oral health literacy for patients with IDD and their caregivers, addressing the specific needs of this population, and improving their oral health outcomes.5,10

Tailored Preventive Measures and Care Plans

Dental providers must adopt a proactive preventive plan to address oral health disparities in individuals with IDD. This can be accomplished by developing individualized oral hygiene plans that are based on an individual disease risk assessment and by considering the specific needs and abilities of the individual patient. More frequent regular dental check-ups and cleanings should be emphasized, and additional preventive measures, such as the use of fluoride varnish and sealants, are essential to mitigate the increased risk of caries and periodontal disease in individuals with IDD. To address oral health disparities experienced by these patients, dental healthcare professionals should adopt tailored preventive measures and individualized care plans that include the following. 26

· Preventive education and training. Dental providers must engage in proactive education and training initiatives to raise oral healthcare awareness among individuals with IDD, their caregivers, and support personnel. Providing accessible and tailored educational materials about oral hygiene practices and the importance of regular dental check-ups is crucial.

· Simplified oral hygiene instructions. Individuals with IDD may have difficulty understanding and following complex oral hygiene instructions. Therefore, simplifying instructions is essential; dental healthcare professionals should use clear and straightforward language and break down oral care routines into simple, step-by-step processes that are easy for these patients to comprehend.

· Oral sensitivities and tactile defensiveness. Many individuals with IDD may experience heightened sensitivities to sensory stimuli, including those associated with oral care.10.27Tactile defensiveness can lead to resistance to toothbrushing and other routine dental procedures. Techniques to desensitize patients to oral stimuli gradually, such as introducing them to the sensation of a toothbrush or dental instruments in a non-threatening manner, can help build tolerance over time.

· Adapted toothbrushes/interproximal cleaners. Some individuals with IDD may have limited fine and gross motor skills, making it challenging for them to perform adequate oral hygiene practices independently. Dental providers should assess the patient's motor skills and choose oral care tools that match their abilities. Toothbrushes with larger handles or adaptive grips or electric toothbrushes with built-in timers can facilitate independent brushing. Use of interproximal brushes, water flossers, and Y-shaped floss holders can aid in interproximal cleaning for patients with motor skills deficiencies.

· Specialized toothpaste. Toothpaste with a mild flavor or xylitol-containing toothpaste can be used for individuals with taste sensitivities. Prescription-strength fluoride toothpaste can be used for individuals with a high caries rate, provided that the patient is able to spit out the toothpaste during toothbrushing. Alternatively, a small amount of fluoride gel can be applied to the teeth after brushing using a finger, cotton swab, or toothbrush.

· Regular supervision and assistance.Performing oral hygiene practices independently may be challenging for some individuals with IDD. Regular supervision and, when necessary, assistance from caregivers may be needed to ensure that oral hygiene routines are effectively implemented at home. Education and hands-on-training for the caregiver is essential to ensure that proper technique is used. Incorporation of the use of a disposable mouth prop into the oral hygiene routine can greatly facilitate oral health home-care practices.

· Nutritional counseling and dietary guidance.Nutritional analysis and counseling should be provided to individuals with IDD and their caregivers, emphasizing a balanced diet that supports oral health. Guidance on limiting cariogenic snacks and beverages can help prevent dental caries in these patients.

· Professional dental care. Early intervention is a critical part of maintaining good oral health for individuals with IDD. By addressing potential oral health issues at their inception, dental professionals can prevent the progression of conditions that may be more challenging to manage in the future. This proactive approach is particularly crucial for individuals with IDD, considering the potential difficulties they may encounter in expressing or managing oral health concerns.

· Regular check-ups and cleanings. Routine dental check-ups should be done to assess the oral health of individuals with IDD and detect potential oral health problems early on. Recare intervals should be based on the patient's ability to perform adequate oral health home-care practices and on disease risk assessment. Individuals with IDD may need to have check-ups more frequently than the traditional 6-month intervals to provide early interceptive care.27

· Inclusive scheduling and flexibility. Appointments should be scheduled at times that align with the individual's daily routine and preferences, as this will contribute to a more positive and manageable experience. Sufficient time should be allocated to accommodate the unique needs of and potential challenges faced by individuals with IDD; flexible scheduling should include allowing for breaks and adjustments as needed.

·  Caries risk assessment. Implementing a comprehensive caries risk assessment is imperative for individuals with IDD. Understanding the patient's risk factors enables the dental provider to tailor preventive strategies and interventions effectively.28 These may include determining frequency of fluoride applications, dietary modifications, and targeted oral hygiene instructions.

· Fluoride treatments and sealants.Specific preventive measures can further contribute to improving oral health outcomes. Routine applications of fluoride varnish and the use of pit and fissure sealants offer a cost-effective preventive measure, potentially reducing the need for more extensive and costly dental interventions in the future.

· Minimally invasive dentistry (MID). The IDD population often faces difficulties in tolerating traditional dental procedures, including restorative interventions. MID strategies, including a focus on early detection, prevention, and conservative treatment options, may help reduce the need for extensive and potentially anxiety-inducing dental treatment. Application of silver diamine fluoride along with an atraumatic restorative technique utilizing glass ionomers as restorative materials increasingly plays a critical role, especially where cooperation during dental procedures may be challenging.29


Understanding the oral health implications of IDD conditions and implementing targeted strategies is essential for promoting optimal oral health in this diverse population. Ongoing collaboration among dental healthcare professionals, caregivers, and individuals with IDD is also key to caring for this unique patient population. Finally, by embracing a patient-centered and inclusive approach, dental professionals can contribute to improving the quality of life for individuals with IDD and foster a more equitable landscape in oral healthcare.

About the Author

Miriam R. Robbins, DDS, MS
Director, Care Center for Persons with Disablilities
Professor of Clinical Oral Medicine
Professor of Clinical Restorative Dentistry
Penn Dental Medicine
Philadelphia, PA


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14. White EN, Ayres KM, Snyder SK, Cagliani RR, Ledford JR. Augmentative and alternative communication and speech production for individuals with ASD: A systematic review. J Autism Dev Disord.2021;51(11):4199-4212.

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18. Autism Speaks Autism Treatment Network. Treating Patients with Autism: A Toolkit for Dental Providers. Available at: October 2011. Accessed September 2, 2023.

19. Autism Speaks. Autism Tool Kit for Dental Professionals. Accessed December 26, 2023. 

20. American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry. Behavior guidance for the pediatric dental patient. Updated 2020. Accessed September 1, 2023. 

21. Mac Giolla Phadraig C, Asimakopoulou K, Daly B, Fleischmann I, Nunn J. Nonpharmacological techniques to support patients with intellectual developmental disorders to receive dental treatment: a systematic review of behavior change techniques. Spec Care Dentist. 2020;40(1):10-25.

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Take the Accredited CE Quiz:

COST: $18.00
SOURCE: United Concordia | January 2024

Learning Objectives:

  • Discuss the unique challenges in delivering dental care to individuals with intellectual and development disabilities (IDD)
  • Describe the various strategies for addressing the communication barriers, behavioral issues, and common contributing factors of oral health disparities experienced by individuals with IDD
  • Describe some tailored preventive measures and care plans that dental providers can adopt to address oral health disparities in individuals with IDD

Author Qualifications:

Miriam R. Robbins, DDS, MS Director, Care Center for Persons with Disablilities Professor of Clinical Oral Medicine Professor of Clinical Restorative Dentistry Penn Dental Medicine Philadelphia, PA


Dr. Robbins has received an honorarium from BroadcastMed LLC, for her work on this article.

Queries for the author may be directed to