Some people may think that occupational therapy is only for adults; kids, after all, do not have occupations. But a child’s main job is playing and learning, and occupational therapists can evaluate kids’ skills for playing, school performance, and daily activities and compare them with what is developmentally appropriate for their age group.
According to the American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA), in addition to dealing with physical well-being, OT practitioners can positively impact psychological, social, and environmental factors as well. According to the AOTA, kids with these medical problems might benefit from OT:
- — birth injuries or birth defects
- — sensory processing disorders
- — traumatic injuries (brain or spinal cord)
- — learning problems
- — autism/pervasive developmental disorders
- — juvenile rheumatoid arthritis
- — mental health or behavioral problems
- — broken bones or other orthopedic injuries
- — developmental delays
- — post-surgical conditions
- — burns
- — spina bifida
- — traumatic amputations
- — cancer
- — severe hand injuries
- — multiple sclerosis, cerebral palsy, and other chronic illnesses
When one looks at specific examples of how an Occupational Therapist can improve children’s lives, the impact is obvious:
- — help kids work on fine motor skills so they can grasp and release toys and develop good handwriting skills
- — address hand–eye coordination to improve kids’ play and school skills (hitting a target, batting a ball, copying from a blackboard, etc.)
- — help kids with severe developmental delays learn basic tasks (such as bathing, getting dressed, brushing their teeth, and feeding themselves)
- — help kids with behavioral disorders maintain positive behaviors in all environments (e.g., instead of hitting others or acting out, using positive ways to deal with anger, such as writing about feelings or participating in a physical activity)
- — teach kids with physical disabilities the coordination skills needed to feed themselves, use a computer, or increase the speed and legibility of their handwriting
- — evaluate a child’s need for specialized equipment, such as wheelchairs, splints, bathing equipment, dressing devices, or communication aids
- — work with kids who have sensory and attentional issues to improve focus and social skills
Although both physical and occupational therapy help improve kids’ quality of life, there are differences. Physical therapy (PT) deals with pain, strength, joint range of motion, endurance, and gross motor functioning, whereas OT deals more with fine motor skills, visual-perceptual skills, cognitive skills, and sensory-processing deficits. These are certainly equally important when relevant, but quite different in what new skills are learned from each of these allied health professional disciplines.
Since 2007, to become an OT, one must complete a master’s degree program (previously, only a bachelor’s degree was required). An OTA (Occupational Therapy Assistant) is only required to complete an associate’s degree program and can carry out treatment plans developed by the occupational therapist but can’t complete evaluations.
All occupational therapy practitioners must complete supervised fieldwork programs and pass a national certification examination. A license to practice is mandatory in most states, as are continuing education classes to maintain that licensure.
Many people think that occupational therapy done at school versus a children’s clinic or a private pediatric practice differ in what kind of treatment is conducted. This is actually not the case. What makes the difference is the sophistication and skills of the OT doing the therapy, and not the setting where it occurs.
This is absolutely an allied health professional that deserves to be honored every year. The interventions they offer can result in the difference between a happy and well-adjusted child who keeps getting better and an very unhappy one who actually may get worse as a result of mounting untreated issues.
Robert Hoyt, Ph.D.
Allied Health Professionals LLC