What is Occupational Therapy?

The early years of your child’s life are extremely important as in these years the social, cognitive, and physical development and growth of your child takes place. The initial three years are very critical as a child’s brain evolves during this phase.

Unfortunately, not all children successfully pass through these vital developmental milestones. Some children do not mature and develop as they should and, thereby, have delayed or restricted advancement and progression. If your child faces these issues and requires support to develop and progress optimally, pediatric occupational therapy would be of great help.

With suitable occupational therapy, children can benefit from enhanced development, improved communication and cognitive skills, with minimal to no developmental delay. This therapy is performed according to your child’s condition or disability.

Pediatric occupational therapy has a number of benefits. It is used for a broad spectrum of disorders and diseases and prepares your child to lead a normal and healthy life. 

The children and youth focus area of occupational therapy centers on helping children develop the skills they need to grow into high functioning, independent adults. The variables that may be hindering a child's ability to progress normally will vary depending on the child, and it can at times be the duty of an occupational therapist to help determine the underlying causes of delayed social or cognitive development. They can then explore potential solutions and design a suitable therapy plan.

The skills of pediatric occupational therapy practitioners are viewed as critical, since the longer a child goes without mastering the skills required for success and independence, the more the problem can compound as they get older. Some of the general developmental areas they address include cognitive skills, fine motor skills, gross motor skills, self-care tasks and social skills.

Occupational therapists practicing with children and youth will often incorporate play into their interventions to help motivate children. This tactic also helps to reduce potential anxiety they may experience through the process. This can involve games, puzzles, toys, songs and physical exercises. Through working with pediatric occupational therapists, children are not only enabled to develop critical skills, but they often also build upon their levels of confidence and self-esteem.

Occupational therapists help with barriers that affect a person's emotional, social, and physical needs. To do this, they use everyday activities, exercises, and other therapies.

OT helps kids play, improves their school performance, and aids their daily activities. It also boosts their self-esteem and sense of accomplishment. With OT, kids can:

  • Develop fine motor skills so they can grasp and release toys and develop good handwriting or computer skills.
  • Improve eye–hand coordination so they can play and do needed school skills such as bat a ball and copy from a blackboard.
  • Master basic life skills such as bathing, getting dressed, brushing teeth, and self-feeding.
  • Learn positive behaviors and social skills by practicing how they manage frustration and anger.
  • Get special equipment to help build their independence. These include wheelchairs, splints, bathing equipment, dressing devices, and communication aids.

Who Might Need Occupational Therapy?

OT can help kids and teens who have:

  • birth injuries or birth defects
  • sensory processing disorders
  • traumatic injuries to the brain or spinal cord
  • learning problems
  • autism
  • juvenile rheumatoid arthritis
  • mental health or behavioral problems
  • broken bones or other orthopedic injuries
  • developmental delays
  • post-surgical conditions
  • burns
  • spina bifida
  • traumatic amputations
  • cancer
  • severe hand injuries
  • multiple sclerosis, cerebral palsy, and other chronic illnesses

Occupational therapy practitioners use a variety of methods to address and promote the skills needed to participate fully in daily life activities. Children with autism and sensory processing difficulties often receive occupational therapy services as a way to build skills in the areas needed to complete daily activities, such as bathing, dressing, completing schoolwork, handwriting, engaging in play, and more.

With the prevalence of autism estimated to be 1 in 40 children, it is important to consider which treatments are most effective for assisting individuals with autism and their families. In this article, we will review the skills that an occupational therapist can address for children with autism and answer the question, should we do OT for autism?

WHICH SKILLS CAN AN OT HELP ADDRESS?

Occupational therapy practitioners have an educational background in areas such as anatomy and biology, human development, kinesiology (the study of movement), psychology, and client-centered care. This puts OT practitioners in a unique position to provide holistic care, or care that focuses on the whole person and their accompanying needs.

If your child is referred for OT services, they will first complete a comprehensive evaluation as a way to fully understand your child, your family, and your needs and goals. Once this is completed, your OT can assist your child and family with developing skills in many areas. Below is a listing and brief description of some of the most common areas addressed in occupational therapy for autism.

EMOTIONAL REGULATION SKILLS

Emotional regulation skills involve the skills needed to successfully manage and cope with emotions. This can include identifying emotions in one’s self and in others, understanding different emotions, and being able to appropriately seek out a helpful coping skill. Children with autism generally have difficulties in this area. Often, they have a tough time reading emotions and utilizing ways to manage intense emotions. An occupational therapist can help your child with all areas described above. They may use a variety of methods including role-play activities, games, video modeling, and direct, one-on-one practice.

 

SOCIAL SKILLS AND PEER INTERACTIONS

Some of the most common social skills and peer interaction skills include greeting others appropriately, using eye contact when speaking, understanding the flow of conversation, being able to read other’s cues and body language, and understanding how others are feeling or what they might be thinking. These are all areas that your child with autism might have difficulty with.

Most commonly, children with autism have difficulty understanding the “rules” of social interactions. Again, an occupational therapist can assist with all of these skills. This will likely involve role-play, the use of peers as models, and using creative ways to help your child better understand social norms and unwritten rules of social communication.

SENSORY PROCESSING

It is estimated that between 50 and 70% of children with autism have difficulty with sensory processing. Sensory processing involves the ability to take in and interpret the information that is occurring within our environment. For example, processing touch and movement.

Children with autism often have over-reactive sensory systems, where their bodies are taking in or processing too much information from the environment. This can lead to the child feeling overwhelmed and over-stimulated. Pediatric occupational therapists have a thorough understanding of the sensory system and how sensory difficulties can affect participation in important activities, such as sleep, dressing, bathing, and eating.

An OT can recommend modifications to these activities, such as making modifications to the child’s bedroom environment to ensure sufficient sleep.

An OT can also work with your child on developing their own strategies to better manage their sensory systems. For example, they might work together on understanding body cues and seeking out appropriate coping skills to use when over-stimulated.

For more information about sensory processing disorder, check out this blog post- https://sensoryjungle.com/blogs/sensory-journal/what-is-sensory-processing-disorder

MOTOR SKILLS

Gross motor skills involve large movements, such as running, walking, and moving our limbs. Fine motor skills involve the small movements of the hand, such as picking something up, writing, transferring objects between the fingers, etc. In many instances, children with autism or sensory processing difficulties have some delay in gross or fine motor skills or both.

During the assessment process, an occupational therapist will look at these areas and find ways to help your child build strength and endurance so that they can complete their daily activities.

FAMILY ROUTINES AND TIME MANAGEMENT

Children with autism often do best with structure, consistency, and routine. Many children on the autism spectrum also have very strong visual skills and find that visual aids are helpful tools for them.

To help your child's transitions go more smoothly, an occupational therapist will work with understanding your family’s daily routines and your child’s tasks that need to be completed.

In order to assist with organization and time management, an OT can help develop visual aids to assist your child with completing tasks. For example, it might be beneficial to develop a visual aid, with pictures, words, or both, for your child’s morning routine.

Other children might need visual aids for each part of their morning routine. For example, they might need to see the sequence for brushing their teeth, taking a shower, and getting dressed. Each child and family is unique and an OT can help assess which tools would work best.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

Overall, there are several skill areas that an occupational therapist could assist your child and family with. It is important to note that each child has unique needs, and for that reason, an occupational therapist uses an individualized approach when assessing and intervening with your child and family. If you think your child could benefit from Occupational Therapy speak to your pediatrician about it to get a referral for an evaluation.

What is Occupational Therapy?