When United Response’s Bradford service first met Harry*, who has a learning disability, he had a tendency to allow his dental hygiene to lapse because of a reluctance to brush his teeth, which had led to swollen gums.

United Response staff initiated a slow introduction to regularly brushing his teeth again in order to lessen the concerns he had about using a toothbrush. With gentle encouragement and hand-on-hand support from his team, he began brushing his teeth after lunch each day.

It was clear that Harry needed to see a dentist to ensure that the swelling of his gums was not the result of a burgeoning infection or gum disease, but this presented major problems. Harry struggles with entering unfamiliar buildings due to his fears of not knowing what is inside and meeting new people.

First steps

After finding a local learning disability dentist, staff began going for walks and doing other activities near the dental office with Harry to gently introduce him to the building.

After a while, the staff would wave at the dentist through the window and he would wave back – something that Harry quickly began reciprocating. Harry is often very verbal, and the dentist soon learned to recognise his voice so that he could wave when he heard them coming past.

Noticing that this seemed to be an effective way of making Harry more comfortable with the process of meeting a new person, staff spoke to the dentist and agreed to call ahead so that he could be near the window to wave to Harry every time they walked past.


Next, Harry’s support team discussed the possibility of him sitting in the dentist’s waiting room to get used to the surroundings. They knew that the large plant behind the door into the building would be difficult for Harry to deal with, so they discussed this with him beforehand, explaining that they would put themselves between Harry and the plant so that he would feel safe.

They also reassured him that he was somewhere secure at all times and carried a photograph of his health facilitator – who acts as a ‘bridge’ contact between his doctor, dentist and other health services – so that his surroundings felt more familiar. Harry knows his health facilitator well and pictures have always been very valuable to him so this technique proved successful.

Thanks to the gradual build-up of interaction between Harry and the health professionals and support staff, it wasn’t long before he was comfortable enough to meet the dentist properly.

No distractions breeds results

Harry’s love of cars had initially helped him to get used to the outside of the dentist’s building as it is on a busy road, but they often diverted his attention. The dentist realised that closing the blinds in his office helped Harry to focus and, once the visual stimulus of cars driving past outside had been removed, it became much easier for Harry to understand what was happening inside the office.

The entire process took just a few months.

Harry now has regular dental appointments and is able to address his hygiene needs with support from staff. The same building also houses a variety of health support services including a podiatrist, optician and a speech and language therapist, and Harry is so comfortable there that he has since had an eye test at the opticians.

This story was told to Laura Hutchings, marketing and communications assistant, by Harry’s support team.

At United Response, we know that one size does not fit all so we treat each person as an individual and design our support around them - find out more about these person centred approaches here. Looking for support? Click here to make a support enquiry.

*Name has been changed.