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Occupational Therapy for Children
Posted by Emily Pazel

When thinking of normal daily tasks, such as zipping up a coat or putting on shoes, you might feel like these actions come easily to you or maybe even instinctual, but sometimes they don’t. Occupational therapy (OT) helps people who struggle with completing normal, everyday tasks. From infants struggling to drink while breastfeeding or bottle-feeding to elderly adults having a hard time using an eating utensil. OT benefits a wide spectrum of ages to help improve fine and gross motor skills and activities of daily life.

The benefits of OT have been proven to help, and starting at an early age can be more effective. So, what exactly is OT? And why is it so common that children are encouraged to try this type of therapy?

What is OT?

Occupational therapy (or OT), per the non-profit organization Understood, is a treatment that helps improve fine and gross motor skills and motor planning, as well as helps kids who might be struggling with self-regulation and sensory processing.

Not only do children need help with at-home functions, such as tying their shoes, but they may also need help in the classroom if writing and typing become a struggle to them. Seeing an Occupational Therapist can help with these issues. They will meet with the child and design a therapy program tailored to their specific needs.

According to Understood, an OT will try to address a couple different tasks and skills that focus on a particular area like fine motor skills, motor planning, hand-eye coordination and balance and self-regulation skills. These include:

  • Self-care routines, such as getting dressed
  • Writing and copying notes
  • Holding and controlling a pencil, using scissors
  • Throwing and catching
  • Organizing a backpack
  • Reacting to sensory input

While OT consists of exercises to build up necessary skills, it shouldn’t be confused with physical therapy, which concentrates on rebuilding body movement. Instead, OT is designed to reshape and help with daily life activities. If a child has messy handwriting, therapy may include multisensory techniques to help. Or, if a child has an issue with focusing, the therapist might recommend doing a full-body exercise before sitting down to do homework.

If you are ever wondering if OT is right for your child, sometimes you can look for signs such as being uncoordinated or clumsier than other children. But most of the time a child will show delays in mastering typical activities or display an unusual or disruptive behavior, which is when you should consider an OT specialist to step in because sometimes this behavior can be seen as “different” or “odd” to other children and can put your child at risk of being bullied at school or on the playground.

Struggling with balance, coordination, strength and endurance are all skills that can be impacted when a child’s gross motor skills aren’t fully developed. Fine motor skills, according to the Child Mind Institute, involve the small hand muscles, which can impact being able to draw, use scissors and string beads. Fortunately, finding the issue early enough and going through the early intervention process can be key in helping improve these issues.

Early Intervention

As with many disabilities and disorders, pinning down the issue at hand and beginning therapy to help resolve the issue from an early age can be key. The first three years of a person’s life, according to the American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA), is a critical time period for brain development.

Across the nation – funded by federal, state and local dollars – there are early intervention programs available to children, from birth to 3-years-old, who need support. Whether they have a disability, are at risk for a disability or may need a little extra help to be successful later in life, OT is one of several services that may be provided as part of an early intervention program. However, depending on the state you live in, some states may require a family co-pay or health insurance subsidy. But some states might offer this service totally free.

Once an OT practitioner evaluates the child, therapy sessions can begin and the practitioner may provide parents and caregivers different tasks to reinforce a skill and help the child improve throughout the day. For example, if a child is struggling at home or during meal times to pick up finger foods, an OT can work with the family to practice this skill together later at home with the child.

AOTA explains that early intervention can help support the family, as well as help the family adapt to helping the child in need. OT services are even tailored to the child’s family, which includes siblings and other family members and they take a holistic approach to a client’s physical well being. AOTA believes that the time at home and in between therapy sessions is what’s most important because that’s when the child will learn and develop the most.

Occupational Therapists not only address fine and gross motor skills, they also address a wide variety of other issues such as sensory processing issues, dyslexia and more.

Other Ways OT Can Help

Sensory processing issues stem from dealing with the five senses – touch, hearing, taste, smell and sight – as well as two “internal” senses, which are body awareness (proprioception) and movement (vestibular). According to the Child Mind Institute, there are theories back from the 1970s that believe that children and adults with sensory processing issues can’t synthesize all the information coming in through the senses.

Children may have issues modulating sensory input and can feel over-sensitivity (hypersensitivity), under-sensitivity (hyposensitivity) or both, which can cause children to become withdrawn or, on the opposite end of the spectrum, crave input.

Thankfully, when dealing with sensory issues, OT’s may suggest things such as special seating and testing in a separate room to help ease the sensory load on a child. They might also encourage things like a sensory gym for children that tend to be on the opposite side of that spectrum. There is even a sensory checklist for parents to help them determine if their child might be struggling with a sensory disorder.

Sometimes, children that struggle with developmental coordination disorder, also known as dyspraxia, may also need OT. As the non-profit organization Understood explains, exercising to increase fine motor skills and might have the child pick up items with tweezers or practice cutting out things with scissors. To build gross motor skills, they can do jumping jacks, catch balls of different sizes or run obstacle courses. There are even fun, DIY ways to help build fine and gross motor skills at home, as well as for when kids are in the classroom.

Occupational therapy might also help children with other challenges such as dyslexia, visual processing issues, executive functioning issues and dysgraphia. If you believe that your child needs to see an OT, there might be free services and even evaluations that you can request at their school. You can also talk to your child’s doctor about a referral to a private OT, where you may have to pay for services if your insurance doesn’t cover them. Nonetheless, there is always help around the corner if you feel your child needs it. Through occupational therapy, your child’s issues can improve and may be fixed altogether.