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special smiles

When it Comes to Healthy Competition, the Special Olympics Connecticut Special Smiles Program is a Winner

August 1, 2022

As an essential element within the sports world, competition lays the foundation for athletes not only to perform their best from start to finish, but to journey down the path to a healthier overall lifestyle as well. This includes exceptional people of all ages who want to take part in sports, in spite of having an intellectual disability (ID). It is at this point Special Olympics takes the field to help them do just that.

Unleashing the potential of the human spirit through the transformative power and joy of sports, Special Olympics impacts the lives of 5.5 million global athletes of all agesincluding 12,000 in Connecticutwho have different types of IDs by providing access to year-round sports, health, education, and community building. With 244 national and U.S. Programs in 193 countries supporting ID sports, athletes have the opportunity to realize their potential, develop physical fitness, demonstrate courage, and experience joy and friendship. Special Olympics also offers multiple health-oriented resources to its athletes, including their Special Smiles oral health program.

Special Smiles is a vital element of the Special Olympics Healthy Athletes® program. Athletes are provided comprehensive oral healthcare information during their Special Olympics events, including free dental screenings and instructions on daily oral hygiene care such as flossing and brushing. For many athletes, a Special Smiles oral health screening will be the first time they have seen a dentist.1 By connecting patients with dentists, Special Smiles is able to break down existing healthcare barriers for individuals with intellectual disabilities and not only give them access to quality dental care, but the opportunity to take charge of their oral health.

Here at Delta Dental of Connecticut, we support overall health and wellness. And this year, the Delta Dental of New Jersey Foundation awarded a 2022 SMILE Mini Grant of $10,000 to Special Olympics Connecticut in support of their Special Smiles Program. We recently spoke with Caitlin Daikus, who helps lead the Special Smiles program in Connecticut, to gain more insights on how their amazing program supports dental care and overall health for these inspiring athletes in Connecticut.

Q. Who is eligible to participate in Special Olympics?

A. Special Olympics training and competition is open to every individual with intellectual disabilities who is at least eight years of age. There is no upper age limit, and in fact, nearly one-third of our athletes are age 22 or older. All Special Olympics Connecticut athletes have intellectual disabilities, characterized by significant limitations both in intellectual functioning and in adaptive behavior, which covers many everyday social and practical skills.

Q. Can you tell us about the history of your Special Smiles program in Connecticut, and how many athletes you have served since its inception?

A. Special Smiles is the dental health discipline of Special Olympics Connecticut’s Healthy Athletes® program. The primary focus is providing athletes with intellectual disabilities the opportunity to take control and ownership of their oral health. Special Smiles provides comprehensive oral health care information and offers free dental screenings and instructions on correct brushing and flossing techniques. The screenings are designed to: 1) increase access to dental care for athletes; 2) raise dental professionals’ awareness of the oral health concerns of people with special needs; 3) develop a body of knowledge about the oral health care needs for individuals with disabilities; and 4) provide a list of local dental professionals who care for people with special needs. Since 2007, SOCT has provided 2,433 Special Smiles screening to athletes at multiple sports competitions and events.

Q. What transpires during an athlete’s dental screening?

A. During a Special Smiles screening, dental professionals review athletes’ dental history and screen for tooth decay, inflammation, and injuries. If needed, athletes receive fluoride treatment and are fitted for mouth guards if required for the particular athlete’s sport: floor hockey, soccer, basketball, etc. Lastly, all athletes receive oral hygiene education along with preventive supplies including toothpaste and toothbrushes.  

Q. What has the response been from the talented athletes you have served and their families?

A. The response from athletes and families has been positive. We have been able to link athletes to follow-up care and dental homes. We have also provided training to dental professionals and students on oral health for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

Q. How does your program not only impact your athlete’s oral health, but their overall health as well?

A. Healthy Athletes® offers screenings and education in a variety of disciplines, including physical therapy, mental and emotional wellbeing, audiology, podiatry, and health promotion. In addition to Healthy Athletes®, our health and wellness programs focus on physical activity by providing fitness education to compliment sports training and competition. Our health and wellness initiative is to improve overall health and quality of life of Special Olympics athletes.

Special Smiles examinations have found that a large percentage of Special Olympics athletes in the U.S. are unaware of the condition of their oral health: 47% have gingival signs, 25% have untreated tooth decay, 9% received an urgent dental referral, and 12% have mouth pain. All of these issues can affect an athlete’s performance on the field or court, and in everyday life. Getting to the root of these problems helps our athletes’ overall health.

Q. What do you feel is the biggest hurdle people with intellectual disabilities face regarding dental care in our health care system?

A. One of the biggest hurdles people with ID face is equitable access to dental care. Through the Special Smiles program, SOCT is training healthcare professionals and students on treating individuals with intellectual disabilities. These efforts increase professionals’ awareness and knowledge of providing care to Special Olympics athletes.

Despite a mistaken belief that individuals with intellectual disabilities receive the same or better health care than others, the reality is they typically receive sub-standard careor virtually no care at all. Their health problems often compound the challenges they already face. The fact is, Special Olympics Connecticut athletes face challenges acquiring access to adequate healthcarealong with proper prevention, diagnosis, and treatment. In turn, this directly affects their physical performances as well as the public's perception of their capabilities and competence in every aspect of life. SOCT specifically designed our Healthy Communities Program and Health Initiatives (Special Smiles falls under this umbrella of services) to help our athletes improve their overall health and fitness.

Since 1986, our philanthropic arm, the Delta Dental of New Jersey Foundation, Inc., has worked to promote and assist educational projects devoted to the enhancement of dental health, as well as access to dental care programs designed to increase public awareness of the general benefits of good oral health and to improve dental health through the science of dentistry. The mission of the Foundation is to improve the oral health of New Jersey and Connecticut residents by providing charitable contributions to solve oral health care challenges. Each year, the Foundation provides financial support to various organizations throughout New Jersey and Connecticut to reach underserved populations, specifically children, developmentally disabled persons, seniors, and veterans. 

 At Delta Dental, we believe that everyone deserves a healthy smile.