Student Spotlight

My Story: Treating Special Needs Patients

ASDA continues to highlight special populations as part of its National Outreach Initiative. In the fall, we are highlighting the treatment of patients with intellectual and developmental disabilities. This is a personal account of how treating patients with special needs can make a difference.

Watching my little brothers’ eyes well up with tears and looking at the expressions of fear on their faces has to be one of my earliest memories of going to the dentist. I remember it like it was yesterday. Visiting the dentist’s office with my younger siblings and mother meant bypassing the waiting room to be ushered by the dental assistants to the quiet rooms in the back. My father would soon join us, wearing his suit and carrying a demeanor of readiness. We knew it was show time when he walked in because that also meant that Dr. Cito would soon come in to join us.

After finishing my dental exam, it was now my brother Marshall’s turn to get in the chair. He was reluctant, to say the least. Back then, simple periodic exams were not so simple when Marshall or my other brother Gabriel got in the chair.

Marshall and Gabriel are on the autism spectrum and like most people with autism, getting out of their comfort zone is easier said than done. My parents had to be with them the entire time during dental appointments, holding their hands so they wouldn’t get up when Dr. Cito was examining their teeth. Most of the time, I would have to help, too.

I didn’t think of this as “special needs treatment” because Dr. Cito didn’t make it that way. To me, it was just normal. He treated my brothers with patience and respect. He changed his usual routine to do his best to accommodate them during a time when they felt vulnerable. Witnessing their transformation as a result inspired me to pursue dentistry as a career.

Currently, I’m a third-year dental student beginning my clinical experience at the Arizona School of Dentistry and Oral Health (ASDOH). I haven’t forgotten why I’m here today. My brothers gave me that spark to pursue my dental education, and continuing my passion for dentistry, I have taken great interest in serving patients with special needs, those patients who require special consideration when receiving dental treatment due to physical, medical, developmental or cognitive conditions.

The U.S. Census Bureau reports that nearly one in five people have a disability in the United States, which means that some of the patients you see will have special needs. Hearing that statistic for the first time showed me the importance of what we are doing as future dentists. I’m fortunate at ASDOH to have many classmates and faculty who share the same interests and passion for this patient population.

I implore all of you to get more experience with the special needs population. A great way to get involved is through Special Olympics, which can be community-based and offers unique dental experiences. Healthy Smiles is an initiative that I’ve been a part of for the past seven years, and it has given me more confidence in treating patients with special needs. Making mouth guards and giving oral health instruction may seem dull, but these athletes will always have a smile on their faces and give you a hug for taking time to talk with them.

Having these experiences as a child gave me the inspiration and passion to do what I believe I was meant to do. As we got older, Marshall and Gabriel became more comfortable at the dental office. I’m happy to say that they have no issues going to the dentist anymore. I attribute this not only to my family but also to Dr. Cito and his staff for treating all of us with respect and patience. I hope one day to become a provider who inspires young children to take care of their family in ways nobody else can.

~Taylor Velasquez, Arizona ’19

Taylor Velasquez

Taylor Velasquez is the ASDA chapter president at the Arizona School of Dentistry and Oral Health. He is a third-year dental student, pursing his DMD and MPH. Originally from Albuquerque, New Mexico, he attended Arizona State University, where he met his wife, Brooke. He enjoys playing fold and reading during his free time.

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