What is pediatric occupational therapy?
We LOVE being pediatric occupational therapists (OTs)! We feel lucky to be able to be involved with so many children and their families that challenge and inspire us daily. In occupational therapy, we encourage development, independence, and rehabilitation through the practice of everyday activities in schools, homes, and community settings. What makes this career so inspiring is that no two days at work are ever the same because OT encompasses so many diverse skills and is practiced in so many different settings. We consider the child’s whole body and how it contributes to overall functioning, but you will commonly find OTs focusing in on fine motor skills, visual motor and perceptual skills, sensory processing, and self care skills. OTs evaluate kids and target their most significant areas of need through interventions in the child’s home, at school, or in a clinical setting. OTs also assess children’s environments to see how they support or hinder independence and participation, making adaptations to encourage independence and engagement. Our overall goal is to help kids participate independently right alongside their peers in any environment, regardless of their level of ability. Let’s look at few of the most common areas pediatric OTs address in treatment sessions.
FINE MOTOR SKILLS
OTs are trained to evaluate children’s fine motor skills (basically anything you do with your hands!) and can provide interventions to target delays and deficits in this area. Think of the hundreds of tasks kids use their hands for each day: grasping and controlling a crayon for coloring, reaching for and manipulating a spoon for feeding, turning the pages of a book, using both hands together to hook and pull up the zipper on a coat. Imagine how frustrating it is for kids who are not to be able to do these things for themselves. That’s where OTs come in! This may involve taking a closer look at muscle tone, strength, and range of motion.
VISUAL MOTOR SKILLS AND VISUAL PERCEPTUAL SKILLS
OTs also work with kids on visual motor integration, or hand eye coordination, so that they can interact functionally with the tools and objects in their environments. Strong visual motor skills are essential for tasks like reaching for an object, handwriting, drawing, cutting with scissors, and dressing yourself. Visual perceptual skills are also frequently addressed during OT sessions, ensuring that children can make sense of what they see in the world around them. Visual perception is what lets us understand space, position, and orientation. It’s how we remember what we see and recognize similarities and differences between objects. Examples include: learning letters of the alphabet, recognizing numbers, and sequencing the letters of your name.
OTs help children learn to understand, process, and organize sensations in their environments and respond in appropriate ways to everyday situations. These sensations may include sight, hearing, touch, taste, smell, and movement. We help children learn to adapt and react appropriately in sensory rich environments. For example, when most children feel crumbs on their faces, they wipe them away without much thought. Or, if they hear a fire alarm at school, their reaction would be to line up with the others at the door to exit the building. However, children with sensory processing problems are unable to understand these sensations and their reactions to them are often negative, protective, or fearful. These children benefit from OT services to help them learn to integrate these sensations, to learn coping mechanisms and strategies, and to become more tolerant of the sensations in their everyday lives. Children who cannot move their bodies freely or efficiently due to neurological impairments and other conditions also benefit from sensory input to help organize their systems to promote motor control and fluent movement. If you’re looking to learn more about sensory processing, check out these two resources from The Inspired Treehouse: What Does “Sensory” Really Mean? and Sensory Processing: 5 Things OTs Want You To Know.
SELF CARE SKILLS
OTs can teach children how to take care of themselves more independently. For example, they may work on dressing skills, including clothing orientation, putting on and taking offshoes, and managing all those small clothing fasteners. OTs work on feeding skills like managing utensils and oral motor functioning. Therapists may also address the management of daily tasks such as getting organized upon arrival at school, or being able to buy a lunch in the cafeteria. They may help teach a child learn to navigate from place to place throughout their day in an organized manner. What is important for independence in one family or classroom can be quite different from another, so we always adapt to the needs of each individual child and family situation. Self care needs are continuously changing as children get older and expectations for independence grow.
No matter what skill area we are addressing, OTs offer exercises, modalities, and activities to improve function, tips and strategies for parents to try at home, and ideas for changing the activity to meet the child’s needs. We can also provide adaptive equipment to help children access their environments more independently. Many OTs are also trained in casting and splinting upper extremities and several other specialities. See what we mean? OTs are trained to address so many different skill areas that no two days at work are ever quite the same. It’s what we love most about the job – it’s always new and changing based on the kids we’re working with and requires creativity, flexibility, and lots of thinking outside the box!