Occupational therapy

It is critical for children to be able to learn, play, engage with others and develop the skills to perform everyday tasks as they mature. This includes the physical development, coordination, development of fine and gross motor skills, the progression of speech and language skills, social skills and emotional and behavioural maturation. While these abilities ten do cultivate naturally as a child grows, some children with medical conditions or disabilities may struggle in certain areas of daily living. Moreover, children are individuals and can develop at different rates as others, and children without diagnosed conditions may experience difficulties in specific areas of functioning.

Occupational therapy (OT) is an area of health care that aspires to help people become more functional and independent, so that they can live their lives as best as possible. OTs regularly serve people who have disabilities or medical conditions with problems in performing tasks related to cognitive, physical or sensory areas. Generally, OTs work in different environments; from mobile OT services that see children in their homes or school, to acute hospital settings and therapy clinics.

Medical conditions that may require OT

Although a child without a disability or medical diagnosis may engage in OT to target specific areas that they may be struggling in, however it is common for OTs to work with children with medical conditions. Regularly seen medical problems that might profit from OT input are:

  • Congenital birth defects or injuries from birth
  • Learning difficulties
  • Brain or spinal cord injuries
  • Sensory modulation disorders
  • Behavioural issues or mental health conditions
  • Arthritis
  • Burns
  • Intellectual disabilities or developmental delays
  • Orthopaedic issues (e.g. broken bones)
  • Spina bifida
  • Cerebral palsy
  • Multiple sclerosis
  • Cancers
  • Amputations
  • Injuries or conditions following surgical procedures

How do I know if my child could benefit from OT?

It is crucial to remember that children are individuals and some children may grow at faster or slower rates compared to their peers, making it difficult to ascertain if a child is simply developing at a slightly slower rate than others, or if there is a more serious reason for their delayed development or behaviours. Nevertheless, some common signs that may indicate a child may need OT include:

  • Restless/fidgeting behaviour or moving excessively
  • Challenging behavioural issues
  • Clumsiness (e.g. often bumping into objects)
  • Poor concentration
  • Poor ability to follow directions and instructions
  • Poor posture
  • Low self-esteem or anxiety
  • Avoiding certain tasks
  • Poor self-care skills (e.g. toileting, feeding, dressing, bathing)
  • Posture is slumped
  • Being sensitive to particular sounds, tastes or tactile experiences
  • Social skills deficits, problems forming relationships and making friends
  • Problems with fine or gross motor skills

How does OT help children?

OT focuses on helping children become more independent so that they can complete the daily tasks that are meaningful to them or expected of them, as well as share in their community as they like. To achieve these objectives, an OT largely focuses on changing the child’s environment to better suit the child’s needs, or bettering the child’s functional skills so they can perform activities more independently. While the specific strategies and interventions employed by an OT will differ depending on the child’s difficulties, the initial step is always usually to gain thorough information about the child and their family, as well as their social and medical history. Following this, the OT will conspire with the child’s family and primary caregivers to come up with an individualised therapy plan to address the child’s needs.

For instance, a child struggling to dress himself will typically be engaged in therapy that targets the advancement of fine and/or gross motor skills and establishing a daily routine. This can involve the OT teaching the child specific skills (e.g. strengthening muscles in the hands to improve manipulation of buttons), or may be concerned with amending the child’s environment to mitigate the hurdles observed.

How do I find an OT service to help my child?

If you have concerns about your child’s general well-being or development, it is advised to visit your GP, who can then refer you to an appropriate service. Alternatively, a guidance counsellor, teacher or nurse at your child’s school may be able to recommend supports near you if you are worried about your child’s conduct at school or in social areas. Moreover, a simple online search will also garner results of OT services that may be pertinent to your child’s needs.

If your child has a chronic medical diagnosis, he or she may be eligible for the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS), which is a government program that supports Australians with lifelong disabilities and conditions.