By Melinda Roy and Jen Studin, Grace Cottage Pediatric OTs
as originally appeared in the Brattleboro Reformer’s Graceful Health series, September 9, 2016
The word “occupational” might lead you to think that Occupational Therapy (OT) is job-related, but really, it’s much more than that. And when it comes to kids, OT is not focused on work at all — unless you consider it work for kids to learn to play, to take care of themselves, and to develop social skills.
OT helps people of all ages to attain and refine the skills they need to participate in daily life: things they need to do to take care of themselves, and things they do for enjoyment. Pediatric OT focuses on skills required to play, bathe and dress, interact with peers, and fulfill student and family responsibilities. Most kids learn these things naturally at school and at home, but for those with special developmental challenges, attaining these skills can be more work than play. That’s when a pediatric occupational therapist can help.
Grace Cottage has just added pediatric occupational therapy to the list of services it offers. Some details of this therapy service might help you determine if pediatric OT might benefit a child you know.
Children who may benefit from pediatric OT typically are those with birth defects, sensory processing challenges, learning difficulties, traumatic brain injuries, orthopedic injuries, fine motor coordination issues, autism, Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, or a range of chronic diseases. Anytime a child has trouble functioning at an age-appropriate and developmentally appropriate level, an occupational therapy evaluation may be beneficial.
Examples of typical difficulties a child might experience are low muscle tone or strength, coordination and balance issues, movement coordination problems, difficulties with grasping and using small objects like pencils or feeding utensils, behavioral or social skill challenges, decreased attention, learning difficulties, and aversion to sensory stimulation. Pediatric OTs teach fine motor control, gross motor coordination, visual perception, self-regulation, body awareness, age appropriate self-care skills, eye-hand coordination, cognition, and sensory modulation.
For example, a school-based occupational therapist might work with a child on handwriting skills or might help a child learn to aim and throw a ball. In a healthcare setting, a pediatric OT might help a child learn to deal with buttons and zippers; forks, knives, and spoons; or a toothbrush.
Pediatric OTs can help children with mental health and behavioral issues that affect the child’s ability to interact well with adults and peers. An OT might provide exercises to increase a child’s focus and attention span, or help the child develop strategies for dealing with noise, so as to avoid sensory overload. Pediatric OTs teach children ways to deal with negative emotions, providing strategies for times when they feel frustrated or angry. No matter how the difficulties manifest, Occupational Therapy can make a difference.
Occupational therapists not only work directly with the child, but also with the family, parents, caregivers and teachers in order to educate and reinforce specific skills and behaviors which will be used to improve and facilitate the child’s performance and functioning.
OTs help the child and the child’s caregiver develop strategies and solutions to overcome obstacles that interfere with successful everyday activities. Some of these strategies may include providing adaptive equipment for dressing, feeding, and bathing; developing a diet to aide in sensory modulation; providing hand splints and exercises to increase finger dexterity and improve fine motor control, and teaching family members behavioral and attention-getting techniques to increase a child’s successful participation with schoolwork, peers, and home life.
A doctor’s referral is required in order for pediatric OT services to be covered by insurance. Check with your particular insurance for details of what would be covered.
Occupational therapists must complete a master’s degree, do fieldwork, and then pass a national certification exam before they are qualified to conduct patient evaluations and to provide services.
Working with children and helping them to overcome obstacles is a challenging but highly rewarding career. Watching children as they learn and grow into independent people is the best reward for a pediatric OT!
Melinda Roy M.S. OTR/L obtained her Masters of Science in Occupational Therapy at Springfield College. She has worked in public elementary schools with students in pre-K through grade 8. Jen Studin B.S. OTR/L earned her Bachelors of Science in Occupational Therapy from the University of New England. Her pediatric experience includes school-based intervention with children of various ages and diagnoses and work with preschool autistic children.