What is Occupational Therapy and how can it help children?

Occupational Therapy (OT) is an individualised service that focuses on building children’s personal and life skills, so they can be more independent and have a better quality of life. OT aims to enhance children’s abilities to perform everyday activities such as personal care or improving performance at school, so children can complete tasks that they are expected to do, or those that are important to them (e.g. in adolescents or young adults, OTs can help them in more advances skills such as money management, meal preparation or helping them with a vocation or find employment). OTs also help develop children’s social skills, so they can better engage with others and participate in their community.

OTs usually achieve these goals by either enhancing the child’s skills to be able to complete certain tasks, or by optimizing the environmental surroundings to better suit the child’s needs and mitigate any barriers that may be hindering the child. OTs often work in close conjunction with the child’s family, teachers and other health professionals to provide a supportive network for the child, as well as develop serviceable strategies to better manage the child’s difficulties.

How can OTs help children with autism?

Autism is a developmental disorder that can often affect how a child interacts with and processes their environment, social and interpersonal skills, physical coordination or problems with low muscle tone, as well as affect cognition such as memory, focus or attention.
Children with autism can often benefit from OT to improve their basic self-care skills and personal hygiene (such as feeding, bathing, dressing), coordination and find and gross motor skills (e.g. handwriting, running, catching), or develop social skills by teaching children about joint attention, forming friendships and the importance of turn-taking. In children with limited verbal or communication skills, OTs can also help enhance alternative communication skills. As children with autism can often display difficulties with sensory processing, OTs can help improve sensory modulation to enable the child to better engage with the world around them. Similarly, as children with autism commonly have limited interests, OT can help children explore different experiences to better relate with others and their environment.

What does Occupational Therapy involve?

The OT usually begins working with the child and their parents/family to gain pertinent history about their overall life, functioning and difficulties. Once the therapist obtains an understanding of the child’s main goals and issues, they will collaborate with the family to build specific therapy goals. This process may also include performing standardised assessments to explore the extent of any condition or difficulty, to determine how independent the child is already. Therapy will then focus on evolving strategies that the child and his/her family can apply to their everyday lives to reduce the impact of the identified problems.
For instance, children with poor handwriting are often engaged in activities to develop grip strength such as squeezing pegs, or the OT can recommend specific equipment to allow the child to grip writing utensils better. OTs can help children develop a daily routine to become more self-sufficient with their personal care and daily living activities or organise equipment that the child might need (e.g. a shower chair for a child with poor balance or coordination). Moreover, occupational therapy can also assist the enhancement of social skills by educating and modelling to the child basic manners and social etiquette, arrange for the child to participate in social groups, utilise play to teach the child about concepts such as turn-taking and sharing, and help the child better understand emotions (their own and those of others).
Depending on the child’s needs, occupational therapy may be for the long or short term. In children with autism, it is common for OT to be required for the longer term.