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Valley mom wants to bring better dental care to autistic kids

PHOENIX — It was about a decade ago for Stephanie Papadadopoulos when she learned Eleni, one of her 19-month old triplets, had autism.

“It didn’t hit me until I got the letter and it said, ‘Autism,’ and I handed it to my husband.”

With two other toddlers developing differently than Eleni, Stephanie was mentally and physically split.

“You know your life was going forward and everything that was fine just took a sharp right and you are going in a completely different direction,” she said.

When she took the triplets to their first movie, “we didn’t make it through the first movie.”

And, when Eleni had her first disagreement on the playground, “she bit a kid in preschool because she couldn’t talk and she wanted to play with them.”

Those moments were relatively easy to fix, but when Stephanie and her husband tried to have Eleni brush her teeth for the first time with an electric toothbrush, it was an entirely different first that became more of a last man standing.

“We couldn’t even have an electric toothbrush in the house.”

They tried to hide it in the front closet, but that still set her off.

“The vibrating and the noise, she doesn’t hear it the same way we do.”

It took Eleni a full year with a therapist to help her overcome her fear of that toothbrush, and it took another three years before she made her first visit to the dental chair and even that had its missteps.

“When she needed a tooth pulled or when she needed a cavity filled, they wanted to sedate her.”

At least two dentists recommended it before they agreed, “my husband and I watched her walking around the room like she was drunk,” said Stephanie. “We knew it wasn’t right”

Two years ago, she found Dr. Michael Feinberg who patiently introduced Eleni to the dental chair and allowed her to inspect each dental tool before she opened her mouth to let him work. That first moment gave Stephanie the idea to introduce Dr. Feinberg to the Southwest Autism Research & Resource Center (SARRC), which ultimately led to a partnership with Delta Dental and a West Valley dental school.

“We treat people with intellectual disabilities, developmental disabilities, patients who are medically complex,” said A.T. Still University Director Dr. Maureen Romer.

“A dental clinic is a really noxious environment for people with autism because we have fluorescent lighting and there’s noise and there’s sounds and all these machines and there’s suctions and there’s water,” said Romer. “It’s really sensory overload for pretty much everyone, but for people with autism, it’s a really intense sensory overload and I think dentists really need to see that first.

Romer said her school takes a different approach than traditional dental schools.

“We talk about mind, body and spirit and that’s not just for the faculty and students, it’s for the patients. It’s to say, ‘This is a whole person, and we are treating a family, and we are treating a person, and the dentistry is one small part of their reality.'”

With the help of Delta Dental and A.T. Still University, Stephanie has a plan for another first: To roll out special needs dental care training Valleywide.

“So every dentist can receive training on how to work with kids with autism and so that every parent can have a guide on how to make the trip to the dentist most successful.”