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Occupational Therapy 101 For Parents


I started working in occupational therapy early in 2002. The funny thing is that I change the way that I describe my profession almost every time someone asks what it is. I usually start the same way: “It’s a person who teaches skills for the job of living” or “a person who makes others’ lives easier and more enjoyable”. You know, something broad and gray and without boundaries, which are all entirely unhelpful but all the while true.

I then dig myself into a deeper hole by adding more fluffy details, like, “Occupational therapy is a practice in breaking down challenging life experiences for individuals, determining deficit and strength areas, and then helping to change contexts or build skills so that a person has fewer challenges and greater life satisfaction.”

I can barely re-read that sentence in one breath, by the way–it’s a mouthful. So, when I see the slight eyebrow lift or perplexed expression on my listener’s face, I know I have only one minute before I lose them entirely.

Abort mission, Nikki. Try a new approach.

Related: Resources to Help Your Child with Executive Functioning Skills

Occupational Therapy 101 for Parents

What is Occupational Therapy?

Have you ever watched a crime drama court scene and observed a witness answer a question with an answer to an entirely different question? Well, OTs kind of have to do that. To give a true understanding of what occupational therapy is, we need to narrow the topic and focus on a specific practice area. So, if you ever meet an OT in real life, instead of asking “What is occupational therapy?”, ask her or him, “What is pediatric occupational therapy?” or “What does an occupational therapist do in a school?” These questions will be well worth your time because OT is so cool!

Related Read: Occupational Therapy – Fine Motor Activities for Kids

I’ve known OT’s who work in traditional roles, such as hospitals, schools, clinics, home health, and nursing homes. I’ve also known OT’s who work in more creative roles, such as at golf clinics, outdoor discovery companies, driver rehabilitation, and ergonomics consulting for the workplace. Love animals? Use them. Love art? Do it. The sky is the limit. Occupational therapy is the epitome of “out of the box” thinking. Maybe that should have been my first answer.

Related Read: What is the Difference Between Occupational and Physical Therapy?

What is a Pediatric Occupational Therapist?

Okay, I told you to ask this question, so I may as well give a proper answer. Pediatric occupational therapy is a service that is provided to kids between infancy and college to help them thrive, engage in meaningful activities, and build independence. It encompasses physical development, like sitting up and reaching for a toy, emotional development, like learning to cope with disappointment, and sensory processing, like using a weighted blanket to help induce sleep.

It includes cognitive development, like using lists to recall information, and visual-motor development, like using a pencil to write neatly on a page. Occupational therapy, at any age, is sensitive to culture, personal interests, and individual goals of clients and caregivers. I had one of my internships (called fieldwork, in OT world) at a Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, where I held tiny babies, helped them to “regulate” their nervous systems, and even crafted itty-bitty splints to support congenital deformities or perinatal injuries. I also worked in a high school, where I taught a struggling learner how to maintain his planner so that assignments could be passed in on time. Both of these examples fall under the category of pediatric occupational therapy.

Related Read: “Art Therapy for Kids” From The Perspective of an OT

Why would a child need occupational therapy?

There is a lot of variability in development, temperament, and natural skill. However, a child might need occupational therapy if he or she is not hitting developmental milestones within the expected age range. Maybe he’s not eating well, potty training, or talking in full sentences. A child might need OT if he consistently has “big reactions” to things that adults perceive as “small problems”. Maybe he blurts out a lot in school, frequently tips in his chair, or avoids playgrounds and organized sports. If you have concerns, talk to your child’s care providers and follow up with your pediatrician.

How do I know if my child needs occupational therapy?

First, it’s important to state that although most children could benefit from occupational therapy, not all children need it. If a child already has a medical diagnosis, like autism, ADHD, or a mental health disorder, it is almost always worthwhile to get an OT evaluation. Anyone with a disability has challenges, by the very definition of the word. OT can offer hope, motivation, and success to children in their daily occupations. The earlier you seek help and support for your child, the greater their potential for improvement. If your child doesn’t carry a diagnosis and you have concerns, again, share them with your pediatrician.

I think my child needs OT, but there’s a waitlist. What can I do in the meantime?

Stay tuned… :)

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