Occupational therapy is a form of treatment commonly recommended in children. When it’s your child, it’s natural to wonder what treatment is, how it will affect your child, and if it is safe. Pediatric occupational therapy is a rich field that is often not understood well but offers many benefits.
What Is Occupational Therapy?
As a discipline, occupational therapy (OT) is a form of care that is appropriate for people of all ages, not just children. Anyone with physical, sensory, or cognitive problems can be referred for OT to help with barriers that may impact a person emotionally, socially, or physically. The primary method of treatment is the use of everyday activities and physical therapy exercises in a controlled environment that can then be applied in day-to-day life.
Pediatric therapy is focused on helping children gain independence and strengthening the development of fine motor skills, sensory-motor skills, and visual-motor skills that will help them to function later in life.
Is Occupational Therapy the Same as Speech Therapy?
One very common form of therapy for children is speech therapy. While these are not the same, there is a good amount of overlap because of the skills involved in speech. However, the general rule is: physical therapy treats the lower body, occupational therapy treats the upper body, and speech therapy treats the jaw, lips, throat, or tongue. These are all interrelated in many ways. A pediatric occupational therapist may address skills related to speech and language development (play skills, social skills, etc.) that are reiterated in speech therapy.
Often, the OT and a speech-language pathologist will work closely together on a particular case. This combination can allow for a focus on maximizing functional progress during therapy, helping new skills to carry over to school or community settings.
What Children Need Occupational Therapy?
There are many reasons that pediatric occupational therapy could be recommended. The presence of certain medical conditions can indicate a risk for developmental delays. If this risk is severe enough that it could impact home and school life, OT can be a good option. Examples of these conditions include:
- Birth injuries or birth defects
- Sensory processing disorders
- Traumatic injuries, like brain and spinal cord injuries
- Learning problems
- Autism and other pervasive developmental disorders
- Behavioral trouble
- Developmental delays
- Post-surgical hand conditions
- Spina bifida
- Cerebral palsy
Goals of Pediatric Occupational Therapy
Depending on what skills your child needs to work on, their occupational therapy may look different. Some children will excel at fine motor skills but struggle with sensory processing, while others may need help across areas. These challenges can all be addressed specifically by a personalized plan.
When a child is behind in developing common skills for their age, this can be a normal variance. However, when they are behind in a combination of skills or continuously not meeting developmental milestones, this is considered a delay. OT may be used to help meet milestones like sitting, crawling, or walking. If a child is severely delayed, the therapist will be sure to meet them where they are to develop skills.
Fine Motor Skills
Any movements made with fingers, toes, wrists, lips, and the tongue are considered fine motor skills. Occupational therapy will focus on practicing these skills and finding methods that work for your child. Examples of these skills include using scissors, tying shoes, using buttons or zippers, and holding a pencil.
Gross Motor Skills
These motor skills focus on the coordination of the arms, legs, and other body parts. Children that struggle with gross motor function may appear unbalanced, clumsy, or uncoordinated. This may be a result of muscle tone, muscle tension, and resistance being different than is appropriate for their developmental range. OT can help them learn these skills or determine any assistive devices that may make movement easier for a child.
Visual processing is different than having vision problems. A child may be able to see perfectly but be unable to process the information they are seeing, struggle to copy from the board, or have trouble with visual tracking. In OT, the eyes are treated like a muscle that can be taught to perform certain tasks, strengthening these skills.
Oral Motor/Oral Sensory
Movements of muscles in the face and oral area, like the lips or soft palate, are oral motor skills. When these are delayed, you may notice excessive drool, odd chewing patterns, difficulty using cups or straws, and other feeding issues. These skills can all be practiced through OT, though feeding therapy may also be necessary if nutrition is threatened.
We all take in information via our senses and process that to make sense of the information. Some children are sensitive to these things, having extreme reactions to loud sounds or movement, being under-responsive, or struggling to cope with change and stimuli. Occupational therapy can help children learn to process sensory input more easily, as well as develop coping mechanisms for these overwhelming feelings.
Social Interaction and Play Skills
Being able to interact with the world around us and have relationships is important, and children may struggle to make connections or adapt to new environments. For children, many social skills are based around play, which should help them to make sense of the world around them. By focusing on positive behaviors, improving attention, and managing emotions, OT can help develop these skills in children who struggle.
Benefits of Occupational Therapy for Your Child
Children, especially those who may be struggling, can often have a hard time paying attention, especially to something that seems like work. Occupational therapists strive to make therapy sessions feel like play for your child, engaging them and getting them excited about their new skills. Most goals can be met by using things like board games, crafts, and obstacle courses, where children are having enough fun to not notice they are learning new things.
Occupational therapy is a non-invasive treatment method that addresses the root of many problems. Rather than turning to medication or assistive devices immediately, occupational therapy is often preferred by parents as a way to see the extent of their child’s abilities on their own.
Therapists also work with parents to develop strategies for learning outside of the office. Through education for you, you will be able to help your child carry their skills to the home and school.