What is Occupational Therapy?

Occupational Therapy is the best! That is my personal opinion as an OT, of course!

The American Occupational Therapy Association (www.aota.org) states that Occupational Therapy is designed to help people of all ages to participate in the things they want and need to do through the therapeutic use of everyday activities (occupations).
Since my blog is geared toward parents, I will explain what a school based OT does. (It is important to note that school based Occupational Therapy is different than medical pediatric Occupational Therapy, but I will explain more about that at a later date. ) A school based OT works with a child by playing, doing exercises, crafts and other activities to address a weakness that is impacting the child’s ability to do what they need to do as a kid.
So many people have said to me- “Occupational Therapy? But children don’t work?!” Actually, a child has a job just like we do. Their job is to learn and play, make friends and go to school. If they have a disability or delay that is significantly impacting their ability to do these “jobs”, an Occupational Therapist will address it in OT.
It goes without saying that many children who receive OT have diagnoses that we would recognize right away; cerebral palsy, down’s syndrome, a visual impairment, etc. However, many children who seem fine to a layperson also need help to “fine tune” their abilities.

Here are some examples:

A one year old is not reaching their developmental milestones such as crawling, cruising, or walking. This limits their ability to explore their environment. An OT will assess the child to determine WHY? Maybe the child doesn’t have the coordination between the right and left sides of their body to crawl. Maybe they have low tone and weak strength and can’t hold their own body weight. Or maybe they have some infant reflexes that haven’t naturally disappeared like they are supposed to. The OT will find out why the child isn’t developmentally progressing and then work on whatever the deficit is. This child needs to get moving in order to continue to progress!

A three year old has trouble sorting by shape or color, matching pictures, and he avoids puzzles. The OT may determine that the child has visual perceptual issues (difficulty processing and making sense of what he sees), which impacts his ability to recognize shapes or match appropriately. This will most certainly affect the child’s ability to recognize letters and later on, their ability to read.

A five year old child holds his pencil in a fist (and his fork too), colors with his whole arm, and slumps onto the table in kindergarten. The OT may determine that the child has very weak muscles in their abdominal and back (core muscles) which impact on the child’s ability to sit up appropriately. If the child doesn’t have stability in their body (trunk), then it will be very hard for them to develop the strength and stability in their arms and fingers that they need in kindergarten.

A second grader still needs help to unpack and follow the class routine in December. She forgets to write her homework down and then forgets to bring her books home. She puts her science worksheet in her math folder. She can’t remember that Tuesday is gym day and wears the wrong clothes. An OT may determine that this child has difficulty with executive functioning (mental skills that help you to plan, organize, and integrate past experience with the present). This is impacting the child’s ability to do what she needs to do to be a second grader.

A fifth grader has difficulty walking in the line without bumping into his peers. His shoes are frequently untied and his lunch somehow always ends up on his shirt. When asked to put something in his back pack, he walks all the way around the room instead of taking the direct path to the back of the room. This child may have poor spatial awareness and lack of body awareness. This impacts his ability to manage his body within his own personal space and to recognize his place within a space (classroom). An OT can work on that, too!

A tenth grade student is failing math. The teacher explains that he has difficulty lining up his numbers, putting his decimals in the correct spots, and reading graphs accurately. This student may receive OT to work on his visual tracking and spatial skills so that he can visually scan a line graph without skipping, copy from the board without omissions, and learn strategies to line up his numbers properly for math class.

A twenty year old student with Down’s syndrome is learning life skills in an OT group at school. She is learning how to pay for things, ask for directions, and how to shop for healthy food in a supermarket. She is getting job training so that when she is done with school at twenty-one, she can earn some money. In OT, she learned how to cook simple meals and how to take the bus to work.

So here are some very simple examples of different ways a school based OT may work to help a child. As you can see, there are many different skills that a child needs in order to do their “job” of being a kid.

I hope this gives you an accurate idea of what OT is and why it’s so AWESOME!

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