Preparing for New Experiences

Mark Arnold by Mark Arnold Additional Needs

Mark Arnold

Mark Arnold

Mark heads up Urban Saints pioneering additional needs ministry programme and is co-founder of the ‘Additional Needs Alliance’, a learning and supp...

Preparing for New Experiences

The tooth fairy is real, and her name is Sarah!

A lot of things have changed for James over the past six months. He had his19th Birthday in June, and since then we have been working through many transitions from children’s services to adult services. Different teams, different styles, different locations, lots of changes. David Bowie might have written a song about it…

This week, the ch-ch-changes train pulled in at the station called ‘Dentist’. For several years now James has been to a wonderful special needs children’s dentist surgery. But, following his visit last year they told us that, unfortunately, as James would be 19 by the time of his next appointment. He would need to transition to the adult team. In a different location.

Ready to brave the journey

So, on Tuesday, armed with visuals of the dentist, James’ toothbrush, his sensory chew, and much prayer. We let James know that it was time to go and see the new dentist. James needed time to prepare for this new experience and to gather up the courage to come out to the car to go somewhere new. We reassured him that we were with him and that he would be OK.

When we got to the new dentists office, there was much that was new for James. He was very unsure about it all. Having parked the car, we tried to encourage James to get out and come into the building. But it was just a step too far for him, too much change to cope with in one go.

So, while Clare stayed with James, I trotted off to the reception desk to let them know that we had arrived, but weren’t able to come in. I wasn’t sure what to expect; would I be told that another appointment would have to be booked; that if James couldn’t come in then it would be classed as a missed appointment; that would we have to pay a cancellation fee?

A sigh of relief

I needn’t have worried, the team were magnificent. They immediately showed outstanding understanding and care and started planning for how they could come and see James in the car park. A few minutes later, one of the dentists, Sarah, and one of their assistants, Jay-Jay, accompanied me to the car to meet James.

They showed such wonderful, gentle, thoughtful care for James. Crouched down at his level, so that they didn’t look intimidating; spoke softly and carefully to him; used his own toothbrush as a familiar way of exploring his mouth. Also, using a plastic-coated dentists mirror, designed so that it didn’t ‘chink’ on his teeth. Sarah managed to have a good look around James’s teeth, carefully assessing almost all of them and confirming that they were all OK.

When they had finished, they suggested that they see him again in three-months’ time. Not because he needs anything done, but to build his confidence and familiarity with the location and team. They suggested that if we were driving by in the meantime, that we could ‘pop in’ with James and if he was able to come inside he could have a look around, sit in the dentist’s chair, and say “hello” to Sarah and her colleagues.

We were absolutely thrilled with how supportive and understanding the visit was, it really exceeded my expectations and the team at The Browning Centre deserve the very highest credit. And James absolutely deserved his trip to the McDonald’s drive-thru and a drive through the New Forest afterwards!

What we learned

As I pondered more on how well things had gone, I considered all the transferrable lessons that could be applied to other settings, including school, church, clubs and other medical or social care appointments:

  • Prepare in advance. We were able to help James understand a little about the visit before we got there.
  • Go at the child, young person, or adult’s pace. We didn’t rush James, we let him show us how much he could manage and when he had reached his limit for the visit.
  • Be flexible. The team at the dentists were wonderfully flexible, willing to meet James’ needs where he was.
  • Go gently. Sarah modelled how to interact with a child, young person, or adult with additional needs; she positioned herself at James level, spoke softly and carefully, took things one step at a time, used what he had brought with him to help him, let him tell her when he’d had enough.
  • Build confidence. This visit is a starting point, if we manage to ‘pop in’ that will help grow James’ confidence. Planning another appointment in three-month’s time will do the same.
  • Add a nice surprise. James didn’t expect a trip to the McDonald’s drive-thru and a drive out to the New Forest afterwards, but he was delighted that we did that, and it will add to the good memories from this visit to the dentist.
  • And finally, believe that there are good people out there who are wonderfully kind and caring. The ‘Tooth Fairy’ is real, and her name is Sarah!

Keep flossing!


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