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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."

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About the Author


Holliday Moore is a Phoenix native with more than 25 years experience in the local and national broadcast and media industry. A graduate of ASU's journalism program, with a second major in Marketing & Management, she considers herself one of the lucky few to be doing exactly what she loves, writing and producing news.

In 2012, she won a prestigious Edward R. Murrow award for a light feature radio story on snakes. For the record, snakes do not say much! She is also honored to be one of two nominees this year for a Mark Twain Award involving her series on Arizona drowning cases.

Among her career accomplishments, Moore has taken home a television Emmy for Cultural Issues Reporting on the Navajo/Hopi Partition Land Act. She has also won numerous Emmy nominations for hard, soft and even sports reporting. However, Moore considers her highest achievement was on the day she received the prestigious Walter Cronkite Political Excellence Award for developing the Scripps Television stations' Democracy 2000 & 2002 program. Bob Morford, ABC 15's News Director at the time, asked Moore to head the project with one wish, "Try not to lose ratings," he said. "We not only did not lose ratings," says Moore, "We actually improved ratings between the coveted 5:00-6:30pm news block."

"She created, designed and executed the award winning program," recalls Morford, "Her efforts brought a great deal of notice and credit to our station."

Moore loves a challenge and is an adrenaline junky by nature. She ran 400 hurdles in college and more recently half marathons to raise thousands of dollars for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. She works part time for KTAR Radio while volunteering for her young son's elementary school and running a freelance media services business.

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