What is Occupational Therapy?

Occupational therapy (or OT) is in the allied health category of health professions that targets augmenting the functioning of the individual. As its name suggests, OT helps people to better engage in and perform activities or “occupations” that are expected of, or important, to them. This involves all aspects of daily living – from basic self-care to managing finances, driving, social skills and taking part in their community. While many people who engage in OT have a disability, injury or other condition that has caused particular problems in functioning, some people needing OT do not have a diagnosed medical condition but have some difficulties requiring intervention. This article will outline what OT may be helpful for in children.

What conditions can OT help with?

Occupational therapists can work with children and adults with any diagnosis, or people with complex multiple co-morbidities to bolster their independence. In children, examples of common conditions that an OT can assist with include cerebral palsy, spina bifida, Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), multiple sclerosis, intellectual disability, developmental delay, birth defects, brain or physical injury, and mental health issues.
Further, specific instances how OT can develop strategies to improve a child’s functioning and independence are:
– Prescribing appropriate equipment for a child to increase their capacity and safety when performing daily self-care tasks (such as wheelchair assessment or using adaptive equipment to improve safety in transfers, e.g. transferring from bed to a chair)
– Addressing fine motor skills deficits through manipulation exercises to improve strength in fingers (to enhance skills such as handwriting, tying shoelaces and buttoning up buttons)
– Helping the child to augment their organization and time management skills by breaking down tasks into simple steps, and developing routines for the child (e.g. establishing a routine for the morning when preparing for school)
– Performing functional assessments to determine the child’s capacity to perform activities of daily living (ADLs) and instrumental activities of daily living (IADLs), the results of which can often be used for directing other therapies (including those outside of OT), or identifying the level of support and supervision the child needs, e.g. for accommodation.

Is a referral needed to obtain OT?

Some occupational therapy services may require a referral from the child’s General Practitioner or treating Specialist, however many do not, and the client can refer themselves. There are various options for OT services in Sydney, and often services will take referrals if they feel they can help the client.

What happens during OT sessions?

The strategies an OT employs with a client depends on the child’s situation, therapy goals and their needs. Usually, the first step is for the OT to gain a complete understanding of the child’s overall functioning. This includes learning about the child’s family, school and social environments, as well as his/her medical condition or other functional deficits in the context of the various aspects of the child’s life. Working with the child and their parents or caretakers, therapy will promote specific, achievable goals for the short and long-term. Once therapy objectives have been worked out, the OT will develop interventions, usually by enhancing the child’s personal skills or shaping their environment in some way to enable them to be more independent. For instance, to advance a child’s basic self-care skills, the OT will often work with the child to improve these skills, for instance by strengthening core strength, mobility or motor skills (to perform tasks better) or by establishing a routine for the child by streamlining tasks into basic steps, such as preparing for school. Moreover, the OT may amend certain aspects of the child’s physical environment (e.g. bathroom or room) to facilitate him/her performing these tasks independently.
As with most therapy involving children, the OT will also closely work with the child’s parents or main carers, as well as teachers if indicated. Collaboration with the child’s main caregivers is crucial to ensure stability and consistency in actualizing the strategies recommended by therapy into the child’s daily life. Of course, the encouragement and support that this gives to the child is imperative.

How long is OT needed?

The timeframe of occupational therapy is dependent on the child’s condition, therapy goals and progress. Children with life-long conditions such as autism, intellectual disability or physical disability, may need long-term therapy while children with less severe deficits may only need momentary interventions.