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NYU dentists want to redefine care for patients with disabilities

The school's Oral Health Center for Disabilities is focused on patients with physical, cognitive and developmental challenges.

New York University Dentistry's Oral Health Center and

New York University Dentistry's Oral Health Center and the NYU Ability Project created a multisensory room with soft color-changing lights, a large mat, weighted blankets, a solitude-enabling chair and more to help those with mental and emotional disabilities relax before, during, and after their oral health care appointments at the center.  Photo Credit: Li Yakira Cohen

For Staten Island residents Donna Agoncillo and her son Christopher Agoncillo, having a dentist that understands how to treat people with special needs is essential. Christopher, 30, has autism, and when superstorm Sandy hit Staten Island in 2012, their options became more limited than ever. Now, the mother-son-duo take hourlong bus rides to and from Manhattan for Christopher’s dentist, a trip that she said is “well worth it.”

Christopher’s dentist is at New York University Dentistry’s Oral Health Center for Disabilities. The new clinic focuses on treating patients of all ages with physical, cognitive, and developmental challenges. Along with basic dental care, the center also provides endodontics, surgery, orthodontics, pediatric care, implants, periodontics, and prosthodontics, all provided by specially-trained students and professionals.

“It was difficult. [Christopher] had a lot of anxiety,” Donna said. Even though Christopher disliked going and has even bit a dentist, his anxiety has greatly decreased with the new center. “You need a place that really knows the individual. … It’s great.”

Clinical director Ron Kosinski said that the goal of the center is to ignite a “paradigm shift” in how dentists care for disabled and special needs patients. Traditionally, many disabled dental patients have been referred to hospitals for care because dentists are not trained to care for those with various conditions, he said.

“There’s too many of those cases,” Kosinski said. The center is a part of the College of Dentistry and now requires that dental students spend six weeks in their third and fourth years in the facility. “Students are already spending more time with patients and they’re understanding they can approach them differently.” 

Each of the nine patient rooms are large enough for caretakers to join patients, has an iPad that can be attached to the patient chair, and has color-changing lights along the wall. One of the rooms has a wheelchair tilt for those who are physically-impaired.

One of the biggest perks for Christopher and Donna at the center is the multisensory room, which was developed with the NYU Ability Project, a student and faculty organization that develops disability-friendly research and technology. The room is located to the right of the waiting room and is filled with soft color-changing lights, a mat, weighted blankets and other calming features. It also includes an NYU student-developed “egg chair” that has an extendable cover with lights that patients can use to isolate themselves if they feel overwhelmed.

“My son’s a very visual individual,” Donna said. “It was beautiful. He sat down and relaxed and didn’t want to get up. He’s usually very hyper.”

If patients are highly uncomfortable, dentists can complete basic care in the room. Kosinski said the room is utilized every day for patients of all ages.

As part of the NYU Ability Project, about a dozen engineering, occupational therapy and art students are also developing a vibrating wall, an interactive projection wall and a virtual tour of the facility to help patients become more comfortable before their appointment. They are also researching toothbrushes and toothbrush holders for patients who have trouble with finger dexterity.

The 8,000-square-foot facility is located at 345 E. 24th St. and is open Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.

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