Many articles about children with special needs include a laundry list of services and therapies, most of which are easy to understand. But what about the difficult to comprehend treatments, such as occupational therapy (OT)? Do occupational therapists help kids find jobs? Do they treat people who are unhappy with their careers? Many times parents will say, “Someone told me to look into occupational therapy, but I don’t know what it is,” or “I’ve heard of sensory integration (SI); what is that?”

The basic goal of occupational therapy is to enable those seeking care to make full participation in the “occupations” of daily life. As an adult, this consists of going to work, getting dressed and having dinner with family. As a child, occupations include playing, learning and growing, as well as attending school and being part of the community.

Who can benefit from occupational therapy?

Pediatric occupational therapists work with a variety of children, including those with autism, attention deficit disorder, learning disabilities, cerebral palsy, developmental delays and Down syndrome. However, a diagnosis is not a prerequisite. A child could be a candidate for OT if he cannot properly function in some area of his life.

How can it help?

Occupational therapists evaluate and address the following areas.

  • Fine-Motor Skills: These are comprised of the small muscle movements of the arms, hands and wrists. They let you perform more intricate tasks, such as buttoning a jacket, holding a pencil, writing, putting coins in a vending machine, cutting and pointing to buttons on an iPad.
  • Neuromuscular Status: This skill set is made of muscle tone, postural control and upper body stability.
  • Gross-Motor Skills: Physical therapists work a lot in this area. However, stability in the larger muscles of a child’s body is necessary for smaller, more refined movements. Gross-motor skills allow a child to catch, kick, swing on monkey bars, play tag, ride a bike, participate in karate class and play video games.
  • Visual Motor/Visual Perceptual Skills: Developmental optometrists look closely at these abilities. An occupational therapist screens for skill functioning in this area and may work with a developmental optometrist, also known as a vision therapist, when necessary. Children may have 20/20 vision but still have difficulty effectively using their eyes. These skills allow kids to copy from the board, color in the lines, write their names, read from left to right and find their cubby when arriving at school.
  • Self-Care: Occupational therapists teach kids how to get dressed, brush their teeth and eat with utensils. They also help with potty training.

Many of the tasks mentioned above are complex and require more than one set of skills. An OT works with your child to break down these actions into smaller and more manageable pieces. Your youngster can successfully accomplish components of a task and work with the therapist to complete the more challenging parts. The expert can work to strengthen the necessary skills for completing the function independently and can recommend other treatments or approaches when needed.

What is Sensory Integration?

If you are a parent who has ventured into the world of therapy, it is likely that you have heard of the word “sensory.” Sensory processing is how your tyke’s nervous system produces a response to external stimuli. An example would be a child pulling his hand away from a hot stove.

If a kid consistently bumps into peers, can’t sit still during circle time, can’t function at a birthday party, has a meltdown every night before bed, doesn’t tolerate clothing tags or textures, gags when in the presence of certain foods or screams when washing or brushing hair, he may be affected by faulty sensory processing. Children who routinely have decreased interest in social and movement activities bear a limited emotional range, don’t cry when falling down or scraping a knee, or constantly want hugs may also be affected.

Not every child with one or two of the aforementioned struggles has an issue with SI. However, a cluster of difficulties that are affecting participation in daily life on a regular basis may be red flags for improper sensory processing.

Pediatric occupational therapists work in school settings, hospitals, private centers and some may even come to your home. Regardless of the setting, OT strives to help your child to perform optimally.