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This Mom’s Mission Is to Change Dental School Curriculums Worldwide

Author and former hygienist Karen Raposa teaches dental students about how to care for patients with disabilities.

Karen Raposa and a friend provide treatment to her son, who at the age of 2 was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder.

After 20 years in private practice as a dental hygienist, Karen Raposa went back to school to earn her MBA. As she was completing her degree, her youngest child was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder — a discovery that fundamentally changed both her personal and professional life moving forward. 

Raposa now tours the U.S. and Canada as a speaker at major dental meetings and colleges (virtually during COVID), where she explains what oral health care should look like for people with disabilities. Her work with dental students inspired her to co-edit “Treating the Dental Patient With a Developmental Disorder,” a textbook that’s used worldwide to address a topic that has historically been left out of dental school curriculums. 

What inspired you to focus your work on patients with autism and other disabilities?

After my son was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, the dentist where I had practiced as a hygienist for 20 years told me, “You do know that if he needs anything other than a cleaning, we can’t treat him here?” That hit me like a ton of bricks. 

At the time, I was teaching at Boston University in the department of general dentistry and I asked if I could develop a course on the topic. For years, I had been prompting people to think about the fact that dental students and dental hygiene students don’t learn anything about providing care for people with autism. It just wasn’t part of the curriculum, like a big black hole. I realized that I could help educate people about this. 

How do you create connections with the students you teach and students in your audiences? 

Dental professionals and students may have never treated a person with autism just because they were afraid or didn’t know where to start. I tell very personal stories so they get insight into what it’s like to raise these individuals. I can provide for them what my son thinks and feels even though he can’t say those things. 

With my course, it’s often a fear of the unknown when I start. But, by the end, there’s a line of people waiting to talk to me to say, “I never really understood autism and you gave me the desire to want to help these people — and now I feel like I have the tools to do it.” 

Is your hope that these students change their career paths to be more inclusive?

The sad part of this whole story is that you’re not going to make a lot of money if all you do in your practice is provide this care. But quite honestly, if every dentist in this country could find it in their heart to help two or three patients with disabilities — as a routine patient in their practice, where they manage dental care for all patients equally — it could change the world for a lot of people.

It really starts in dental schools, and the American Academy of Developmental Medicine & Dentistry (AADMD) has been successful in guiding changes to the accreditation standards so now students need to be able to “assess” and “manage” the case of a patient with a special need. Now, they have to be able to prove their patient got the treatment they needed. But unless dental school becomes a five-year program … there’s already so much students have to learn! At a minimum, I’d love to see there be a certification or residency program they can elect to do after they graduate to learn more about treating patients with disabilities, because it’s truly eye-opening for them.

Find additional information on barriers to dental access for special needs in the DentaQuest Partnership for Oral Health Advancement online learning center.

Read more stories about Preventists changing their communities and learn more about the future of oral health at Preventistry.org.