Occupational therapy is not only for children with autism. It can even benefit children who lack in basic academic, social and functional skills.
From minor developmental delays and problems with writing to larger issues like problems with visual perception, occupational therapy benefits all kinds of children.
A friend’s daughter had problems with writing. She is twelve but her writing was shaky and resembled the writing of a six-year-old. Her school’s resource room recommended that she work with an occupational therapist.
After about seven months of sessions with the occupational therapist, my friend noticed that her daughter was improving remarkably, proving that this form of therapy isn’t only for children with autism. It can also be used to iron out any little problems that a child may have in his or her day-to-day tasks.
Occupational therapists (OTs) work with all kinds of children and even adults.
What is occupational therapy?
It’s simple – occupational therapy helps children achieve independence in their day-to-day activities. This can be anything from writing and organisation to motor skills that simply aren’t in place. An occupational therapist works with children who have difficulties in going through simple yet essential routines, and have problems when it comes to fine motor skills, sensory issues, academic and social skills and more.
Let me give you an example. My daughter has difficulties in reading, writing and Math. Neha Rastogi, a paediatric OT who practices in HSR Layout, works with us. She uses sensory integration to help my daughter in skills that impact her learning.
These include skills like left-right integration, mid-line crossing, planning and sequencing, gross motor skills, proximal stability, balance and coordination. These may sound like mere terms but they are important in rewiring the brain and to prime the child physically to accomplish tasks that need dexterity and strength.
Who is an occupational therapist?
Vyshnavee Mohan Ram is an Occupational Therapist who works with PlayStreet, an organisation in Bangalore that caters to the needs of neuro-diverse children. She says, “While a teacher would only concentrate on trying to improve handwriting, we assess the child and see how best we can improve the skills required for tasks such as writing or focus. A thorough assessment is taken. We try and find out what the areas we need to work on. Attention, perception, memory or motor planning difficulties; our therapy starts whenever these skills are lagging.”
There are no fixed exercises. An OT program is designed for each child individually, because each child is different.
“The main frame of reference we use is sensory integration and visual perception, as these two areas form the basis for learning.”
Why do we need occupational therapy?
For one, children are not getting enough natural input. They don’t play much and are never outdoors. They are hooked onto devices and don’t meet enough people. We also restrict our children too much and are scared to let them go out and explore the world. Indeed, there are innumerable reasons why a child is not accomplishing simple, everyday tasks that are developmentally appropriate. Occupational therapy goes a long way in bridging these gaps.
When does a child need occupational therapy?
Here are some of the areas that occupational therapists work in solving:
– Problems in handwriting.
– Learning difficulties
– Problems with hand-eye coordination and motor skills
– Developmental delays
– Autism, ADHD and cerebral palsy
Where occupational therapy can really work wonders
Vyshnavee asserts, “One of our children could not be categorised either as a child with ADHD or learning difficulties. His parents were worried about writing skills and also because he was not able to finish tasks and work on time. In fact, he was unable to sustain attention and every 5 or 10 minutes, he would need to get up and walk around.
I used a combination of Brain Gym and sensory integration. I developed activities that worked on motor planning, solving, coping with changes in his environment, and also used the vestibular rope, wherein he had to involve the whole body to sustain attention. This improved his focus tremendously.”
Neha gives us an example of a seven-year-old child who greatly benefited from occupational therapy. “He came with the problem of writing slowly and not completing his class work. When I assessed him, I found he had poor co-contraction of core muscles. His left right-integration was also poor and he did not have good visual perception skills. He was also a messy eater. After working with him for 5 months and for two times a week, he has become fast in copying from the board. His left-right integration has improved tremendously. He can even juggle 3 tennis ball simultaneously and he eats very neatly with one hand. The child no longer needs OT and is doing very well.”
Tons of fun!
The beauty of occupational therapy? It’s so much fun! Says Neha, “If a lay person sees what I do in therapy, he or she would think that the child and I are only playing. But whatever the child chooses or does in my session is designed by me to improve a certain skill. Whether he is swinging or jumping or playing with clay, there is a reason behind it.”
My daughter simply loves her sessions with Neha and is never too tired to attend one, even after school. She loves the obstacle course that Neha designs. She also loves all the activities on the swing, especially when Neha swings my daughter very high and very fast, and my daughter, while swinging, also has to solve a wooden puzzle on top of the swing. This from a child who used to be scared of swings and heights.
What to look for when choosing an occupational therapist
According to Neha, the biggest criteria when looking for an OT is to make sure they are suitably qualified. “Ideally, an occupational therapist should have a Masters in Occupational Therapy, or at least a Bachelors in Occupational Therapy. There is lot of malpractice these days, especially in paediatric occupational therapy, as the demand is more. Parents should make sure that the therapist has a degree in occupational therapy and is not just a physiotherapist. The two are very different.”
The biggest misconception about occupational therapy? It’s the belief that it is only for children with autism. Occupational therapists work in making a person become independent to do his or her occupation.
Neha affirms, “An occupational therapist who is specialised in adult neuro rehab works with patients with strokes, spinal cord injury, Parkinson’s and many other issues to make them independent in everyday activities. It is a broad area of expertise. When it concerns children, they help children in important life skills.”
Learning and development is a vast resource with tremendous potential. As a parent, I am extremely indebted to the nurturing efforts of occupational therapists.
Disclaimer: The first two photos are from Kidstreet, a regular setup in Bangalore that uses SI principles for a child’s overall development. They are for representational purposes only.