Like any other attentive parent, do you ever find yourself in a position where you feel overly concerned about your child’s development? Furthermore, do you find yourself comparing your child to others their age and think, Something just doesn’t look right. Every child grows and achieves milestones at different rates, but sometimes our kiddos may need a little boost. Whether it’s refining those tiny finger movements to manipulate a spoon, coming down from an intense meltdown, or to better verbalizing their needs to mom or dad, occupational therapy plays a vital role in assisting children and their parents or guardians to succeed.
What Is Occupational Therapy?
Occupational therapy (OT) is a highly skilled profession that involves the use of a wide variety of techniques and training to assist individuals across the lifespan. “Occupation” refers to tasks or activities that are important to us, including those that we must participate in to survive and those that we want to take part in simply because they bring us joy. Occupational therapy incorporates patient- or client-chosen tasks into therapy sessions to further someone’s development after an acute or chronic illness, disorder, or injury.
How does occupational therapy help children?
Let’s take a look at the following scenario to portray some ways OT helps children:
Cassidy is a 3-year-old girl with Down syndrome who lives with her mother and three brothers. Due to Cassidy’s low tone muscles, which is common in children with Down syndrome, she is now just starting to learn how to walk. She can grab onto and pull herself up into standing using furniture in her home but hesitates to take steps on her own. Her mother also still spoon-feeds her at every meal because Cassidy has difficulty with firmly grasping feeding utensils.
OT is an all-encompassing approach that assesses everything that influences a child’s ability to participate in certain tasks like play, movement, self-care, schooling, and social participation. The oversimplified way to look at it is to observe three separate parts: the task, the child, and the environment. OTs assess these parts separately as well as how each part influences the other. In Cassidy’s case, the OT notices that her diagnosis depicts certain symptoms like low muscle tone which can negatively impact her ability to move and grasp objects. The focus would be to improve her low tone through the use of meaningful activities for Cassidy, like playtime, to get her to strengthen her muscles and refine her coordination.
What does an occupational therapist do to help children?
An occupational therapist, specifically a pediatric therapist, helps children achieve their developmental milestones and put them on the right track as compared to their typically developing peers. In the case of Cassidy, she is just beginning to learn to walk at age 3 while her peers may have already mastered walking at 14-18 months. Although a pediatric OT works diligently to develop rapport with a child, they also make parents and other relevant adults in the child’s life a primary focus of therapeutic care. OTs only see a child for a fraction of their lives, so it is essential for the therapist to include parents and caregivers in therapy sessions so new interventions can be applied at home and school.
Who can facilitate occupational therapy?
OT interventions are carried out by licensed occupational therapists (OTR/L) and licensed occupational therapy assistants (COTA/L). An OTR/L supervises COTAs, administers and interprets assessment results, and creates treatment plans for the child based on their goals and the goals of their parents. COTAs can carry out OT interventions based on the treatment plan developed by the OTR/L. Parents, teachers, and caregivers are also permitted to carry out OT interventions if they have been properly trained to work with the child by a licensed OT.
How long does a child need occupational therapy?
Occupational therapy treatment plans for children are highly customized and depend on many variables: the child’s current limitations, the child’s ranking in typical developmental milestones, the OT setting, and available insurance coverage. In a perfect world, a child would participate in as many OT sessions as needed to get them on the right developmental track in all areas: social, motor (movement), emotional, and cognitive development.
Where does occupational therapy take place?
Pediatric OT can be adapted to fit multiple settings, including:
- In-Home OT
- In-school OT
- Outpatient clinic OT
- Hospital-based OT
- Community-based OT
Why would a child need school-based OT?
If a child requires OT at school, based on their teacher’s recommendations, it’s usually because they are falling behind in their academics due to some underlying struggles that need a trained eye. Take the following example:
Trevor is a 10-year-old boy with autism spectrum disorder and accompanying sensory processing disorder. Lately, he has fallen behind in his coursework in school and his teacher has taken notice. Trevor rarely makes eye contact with her or any of the students in his class and keeps his verbal communication to a bare minimum. During singing time, he hides in the back of the classroom, covers his ears, and pulls himself into a little ball. His handwriting is illegible. He can’t stand the texture of his socks and usually pulls them off during class.
In Trevor’s case, he can be referred to OT services in his school environment to address the issues that are disrupting his ability to effectively learn and to better inform his teacher and classmates on alternative approaches to use with him so he can better achieve his school-related goals.
Who Can Benefit From Occupational Therapy?
Occupational therapy helps people of all ages, but specifically, children struggling in any of the following areas:
- Fine Motor Skills
- Gross motor skills
- Cognitive skills
- Emotional regulation
- Visual-perceptual skills
- Mental health
- Sensory processing
- Language processing
- Social and community participation
Disruption in any of these areas due to illness, injury, or a diagnosed disorder can impact their ability to play, learn, communicate with others, and conduct routine self-care tasks.
What disorders do occupational therapists generally work with?
Pediatric OTs frequently work with children with any of the following conditions:
- Autism spectrum disorder
- Down syndrome
- Cerebral palsy
- Brain injury
- Fetal alcohol syndrome
- Premature infants and children
- ODD (oppositional defiant disorder)
By no means is this list exclusive. OTs work with a wide variety of children and make the child and their goals the focus rather than just the disorder or medical condition. Some children may not have a clinical disorder and could still benefit from OT.
How To Find An Occupational Therapist?
If you have concerns about your child’s development and think that exploring occupational therapy would be beneficial, contact your pediatrician or school nurse. For outpatient, in-home, or hospital-based OT, children usually require a physician’s referral to access insurance-covered services. For school-based OT, a teacher or a parent can refer a child to the school nurse to get the process started. Oftentimes, potential OT services are discussed in an IEP meeting involving the parents, the child, and all adults who work with the child at school. If you are investigating OT services on your own, particularly outpatient services, contact your medical insurance provider to confirm available coverage. Some OT programs, such as those available in early intervention, are non-profit-based or covered by Medicaid.
It’s essential for parents or caregivers to locate an occupational therapist who they can trust and who works well with their child and their unique needs. Consistency and a solid relationship between the therapist and child will only exponentiate their success. At The Therapy Place, we offer occupational therapy in our clinics, schools, and your homes so that we can meet you where you are and help make it easier for you and your child.
Occupational therapy can do wonders for children who need that extra boost to achieve their goals and be happy in their daily lives. Sign up for The Therapy Place’s email newsletter to get more information, tips, and at-home exercises for their children.