For many children with special needs, disabilities, challenges, or developmental delays, occupational therapy is an important part of their support plan. But what is it, exactly? What are the benefits? Here are five important things to know about OT.
1. It’s not about jobs.
Many see the word “occupational” and think that OT is about vocational training. In fact, that is very seldom what it’s about.
“OT looks at the term ‘occupation’ in a much broader sense. It’s really about the things that give everyday life meaning,” explains Tracy Murnan Stackhouse, executive director and co-founder of Developmental FX, an OT provider. “For pediatric OT cases, the role that children play is to be a learner, a grower, a developer, a player, a family member, and a friend. Those roles are their occupation.”
“OT can be described as teaching skills for the ‘job’ of living,” says Liz Green, occupational therapist and owner of Link OT. “We work with clients to uncover tasks or goals that are meaningful to them and help build the skills needed to meet those goals.”
2. OT can benefit people at different ages with a range of abilities.
While many kids with autism, ADHD, and other diagnoses may receive OT, it’s not just for kids and it’s not just for specific diagnoses.
“Occupational therapists work with all age groups, from newborns to the geriatric population,” says Michael Lehnerz, an occupational therapist with McLellan Homecare. “We can be a consultant to school personnel, home nursing services, environmental modification contractors, employers for ergonomic training and motor vehicle specialization.”
“We work with kids with significant diagnoses, as well as those that don’t have a diagnosis but have vulnerabilities,” Stackhouse says. “Those could be anything from a lack of smoothness in their days to not being able to recover from events and emotions around them.”
3. It’s a great first intervention for struggling kids.
Parents know their children, and have an inherent sense of when something isn’t quite right and their child needs help. In many cases, OT can be among the first interventions, and with good cause. It covers a lot of ground.
“OT provides direct services that include promoting function and independence in activities of daily living such as dressing, bathing, grooming, feeding, school related activities, community participation, play, work, or other meaningful activity,” Lehnerz says.
“We want our clients to be able to perform whatever functional activities matter to them most, whether the goal is for a child to be able to join in and play with peers, the adult to get a job, or the senior to complete household routines,” Green says. “No matter the work, the long-term goal is the same.”
4. It is informed by both medical and behavioral factors.
“We naturally fit within the medical model, in terms of being evidence-based, as well as in the neurodiversity social model, which puts the client’s goals first, with the use of a strengths-based approach,” Green says.
“What we have developed over the years is a lot of expertise and understanding of how peoples’ bodies move, how they take in the world—sometimes referred to as sensory processing—and how they make sense of the world internally in order to become effective agents of occupation,” Stackhouse says. “Therapists are often working on fine motor skills, but also play skills, social interaction skills, problem solving, coping and self-regulation skills.”
5. OT works well with other supports.
Many people who receive OT may also receive other types of therapy. Because of the flexible nature of OT, it functions really well as part of a larger support mix.
“We work very well in the mental health field and [OT] can be highly complementary to the work mental health therapists do with clients,” Green says. “We are about ‘doing,’ so we can help clients put their ideas and goals into action, even if that involves emotions and cognition.”
In addition, OT providers communicate with their clients when they notice issues that could use additional support. “The pandemic has affected the development of many children, often through mental health stressors,” Stackhouse says. “Reaching out and getting resources for children is more important than ever.”