What do occupational therapists do?

Occupational therapists (OT) help people grow their independence and skills to perform everyday tasks and activities that is important to the person. This can range from vocational “occupations” such as studying or pursuing a career path, or assisting someone to better complete daily activities such as bathing, feeding, motor skills or participating in recreational and social tasks. OTs work with people of all ages and various medical diagnoses or conditions. Often people may have support from agencies such as the NDIS to help them find supports.

What can OT help children with?

Children are often referred for OT by their parents, teachers, support workers, or doctors due to concerns about the child not developing or behaving as expected for the age/developmental stage. Common concerns include learning difficulties and other problems at school (e.g. concentration, sequencing, organisation), social skills issues, poor motor skills and issues with general self-care. This article will focus on how OTs can work with children and their families who have sensory processing issues.

What are sensory issues?

A child with sensory issues (which may be diagnosed as sensory processing disorder) has neurological deficits where sensory information is not properly coordinated. It is common for an individual with sensory processing problems to show signs in early childhood, specifically the pre-school era. The child often displays behaviour indicating sensitivity to external stimuli such as sound, touch or light. This may manifest as being overly fussy about clothing, being clumsy or having poor motor skills. As the condition means that they may be more sensitive, or less sensitive, to their environment, it often has a significant impact on their ability to execute daily tasks and interact with others and their physical surroundings.

How do I know if my child has sensory issues?

The effects of sensory processing disorders can vary from child to child, however some commonly observed signs of sensory issues include:
– Not reacting as expected to certain stimulus, e.g. not responding when is called or being touched)
– Increased sensitivity/reactivity to movement, sound or touch
– Poor ability to manage emotions and behaviours, often resulting in strong emotional reactions, tantrums or impulsivity
– Presents as not interested in participating in activities with others
– Erratic sleep patterns
– Shows inadequate focus and attention
– Appears physically uncoordinated or clumsy with poor motor skills
– Poor social and communication skills, poor ability to play with other children
– Completes tasks with excessive force or movements
– Poor ability to adapt to change or going from one activity to another

How can OT help children with sensory processing difficulties?

To promote independence, occupational therapy aims to work with the child and their family to establish a treatment plan that is especially catered to the client’s personal needs. Common ways OTs help to mitigate sensory problems are to teach the client and their carers/parents strategies to better deal with sensory stimulation and teaching the child appropriate responses, determining events or other situations that flare harsh reactions, focusing on expanding interests and skills, broadening sensory experiences to improve sensory modulation, or progressing fine and gross motor skills and physical coordination. OT can also alter the client’s environment (i.e. at home or at school) to minimise components that provoke sensory reactions. Moreover, as the primary carers, family members or teachers involved with the child are often involved to learn how to improve their management of any challenging behaviours, although it may also be beneficial to complement OT with psychology treatment for more intensive behavioural management needs.