If you have a loved one who has received occupational therapy, or if you’ve received occupational therapy yourself, you’re aware of how an occupational therapist can help you in a multitude of ways.
You may have a loved one under the age of 3 that was referred to occupational therapy because there was a delay in fine motor skills, and maybe your loved one had difficulties maintaining their regulation (ability to keep a calm, attentive, and engaged demeanor). Maybe your child has difficulty with feeding, and the occupational therapist worked on helping your child develop the oral-motor skills they needed to chew and swallow safely with good coordination. Maybe you have a child who has difficulties with their self-help skills, so the occupational therapist helped your child with being able to brush their teeth and dress themselves.
Since occupational therapy focuses on improving a vast array of underlying skills that manifest into function, your personal anecdotal experience with occupational therapy may be the way you define what occupational therapy is, based on the context and what you, your loved one, or your child was helped with. With that said, what are some other things an occupational therapist helps children with?
Here’s 3 benefits of occupational therapy that you may not have known about:
OT’s surely work on feeding by helping your child improve their ability to coordinate and safely chew food, form into a bolus, and to swallow. For kids who have difficulties with their oral motor muscles, poor oral motor awareness, and difficulties with the sequencing aspect of feeding, they can be referred to occupational therapy and we’ll work together on the underlying skills needed to be successful.
What you may not know is occupational therapists actually also work with kids that may have a very limited feeding repertoire, despite no delay in oral motor functioning. We may work with kids who may only eat 3-4 items of food on a daily basis, because that child may have a severe physiological aversion to other foods due to trauma, a sensory processing challenge, or a rigid preference in regards to food that they will eat.
It is important to know that even kids who are mentally willing to expand their food repertoire, may have a severe aversion with just the visual presentation of food because they may have had a traumatic experience with feeding in early childhood. Thus, even if their minds are willing, the brain and body can take over and have a physiological response where it may tell the child this is not a safe experience.
So how do OT’s work on this skill with your child?
Like all underlying challenges presented in occupational therapy, OT’s focus on meeting your child where they are at.
This looks like being able to understand the child’s world, validate their concerns about trying something new, and helping them find ways to flexibly recover to develop the skills that they need to interact with new foods and feel successful doing so.
We’ll use sequential steps to help your child find ways to interact with the food, first starting off tolerating the visual presentation, interacting with food by helping prepare, smelling the food, touching the food with a tip of the tongue, to tasting by kissing, to eventually eating. Based on where the child is, we may operate within that appropriate level of interaction until they feel safe and confident to proceed, but it is all about fun! Say your child is learning about carrots and blueberries, and they feel like they are not ready to kiss the food yet…. we may take a step back to interact with the food in a way that is more playful, such as building a carrot car with blueberry wheels, or make silly faces with carrots and blueberries on a plate. In this way, success to the child is not perceived with absolute labels (if they eat the food it’s a success, if they don’t it’s a failure), but rather, helping your child feel successful because they have tools of interacting with foods at their own pace.
Keep in mind the goal here is not to have your child like everything that they are presented with as we all have our own preferences, but merely to provide them the tools needed to formulate their own opinion about a food, a term I like to call helping your child become a “food scientist.”
Executive functioning and its development is a skill formulated in the prefrontal cortex, and its diverse array of skills are important in our development. Executive functioning is in constant development, and it actually does not mature for females until ages 22-23, with males maturing at 24-25.
All of these important pieces of executive functioning are skills that occupational therapists work on with your child in order to further support their executive functioning development. What might this look like in an occupational therapy session? We may work on helping your child identify how their “engine” is running today, to gain better self-awareness about their regulation. This may be followed by teaching your child appropriate sensory based strategies to re-regulate themselves. We may work on flexibility, in being able to try something new that helps your child explore outside of their typical comfort zone. We may encourage your child to have a collaborative approach in helping plan the session and keep track of time for each activity.
Bottom line: executive functioning is at the root of all occupations, so this is definitely an important skill an OT will work on with your loved one.
As an occupational therapist in an outpatient setting, in a traditional construct I will typically see a child for 1-2 hours per week based on the degree of challenges they are experiencing.
Thus, as an OT I always emphasize the importance of “your child will go as far as you take them,” meaning in order to see a continuity of change and improvement across settings, you must lead your child’s therapy at home to ensure transference of skills.
“Your child will go as far as you take them.”
I liken myself to a compass, who will point your family in the right direction, and I will empower your family with knowledge, strategies, and resources to ensure continuity of skills and to support you in being the lead agent of positive change for your child.
For a lot of the families I work with, I encourage them to join me in session in order to practice important skills for their child’s home occupational therapy program. This can look like helping families learn neurodevelopmental handling techniques, strategies to support self-care skills, implementing sensory strategies to support regulation, activities to work on fine and gross motor skills given the supplies available at home, and helping families learn about evidenced based models to help facilitate more opportunities for connection with your child, such as the DIR Floortime model.
It’s an incredible evolution to see just how far families come at the conclusion of therapy, and if I can empower you to clinically reason like an OT, problem solve collaboratively, and empower you with confidence in leading your child’s therapy, then we’ve reached the ultimate goal.
I hope these benefits of occupational therapy have broadened your perspective in regard to the holistic viewpoint OT’s have, in being able to help support your loved one to be the best version of themself.
Jonathan always knew that his life purpose was to help people. Jonathan is passionate about pediatric mental health, family centered practice, and learning more about innovative evidence-based therapies. Jonathan refers to himself as an “oversized child” and loves the process of families working together to maximize a child’s full potential. In his free time, Jonathan plays basketball and music, dances, travels, watches his teams play, and hangs out with his friends and family (most especially his dog!)