Occupational therapy can improve children’s lives in a variety of ways
OCCUPATIONAL THERAPY CAN IMPROVE CHILDREN’S LIVES IN A VARIETY OF WAYS
Spend any time at a preschool or elementary school these days, and you will no doubt hear about occupational therapy (OT).
“An occupational therapist works with someone who is having difficulty succeeding in their ‘role’ in life,” explains Karen Bronstein, an occupational therapist in private practice at Northern Valley Speech Language and Learning Center in Cresskill. “These areas encompass work, self-care and leisure.”
An occupational therapist will help when a child has troubles in any of these areas, Bronstein says, such as, “holding a pencil or cutting with scissors, feeding themselves, dressing themselves, coordinating their bodies to play on the playground or integrating their visual motor skills to catch a ball.”
Jean Marie Sacco, an occupational therapist at North Jersey Elks Developmental Disabilities Agency, a nonprofit in Clifton, says some signs that a child may need occupational therapy include “a severe reaction to everyday situations like tags on clothing, haircuts or teeth brushing. [The child] does not seem to know how to play with toys appropriately and they have trouble using his or her hands together to perform such tasks as buttoning, cutting with a scissors, dressing or undressing one’s self.”
She says that by age 3, a toddler should be able to completely undress without help.
If a parent or caregiver has concerns, a child should be brought for an initial screening or evaluation. Dr. Chaye Lamm Warburg, director of Pediatric Occupational Therapy Services in Teaneck, notes, “A lot of parents come with concerns – perhaps their baby is hypersensitive to certain things. Parents have a gut feeling, and we respect that and investigate the area of concern.”
Andrea Delmonico, an occupational therapist at the Abilities Therapy Network in Midland Park, explains that children are evaluated “in lots of different activities. This helps us look at their visual-motor skills, visual-perceptual skills, bilateral hand coordination, fine motor strength and coordination. We are then able to see where the dysfunction is and we look for the underlying issue.”
Occupational therapy can start at birth for some babies, and there are occupational therapists that go into the NICU if a baby is having trouble positioning, feeding or there is a lack of physiological flexion. Warburg sees babies as young as 6 weeks old if they have an identifiable disability and then a little later if they are not meeting major developmental milestones, such as rolling, sitting or standing.
“We also see babies who seem aloof, overwhelmed by sights and sounds, and who are hypersensitive,” she says.
How do occupational therapists accomplish their goals?
“A great OT should look like a play date,” Warburg says. “We use systematic desensitization. Making it fun, we prepare all senses to explore on their own terms. This may include vibration, deep brushing and joint compression. We use swings, tunnels, jumping and other whole body activities. We will introduce noxious clothing. We are always going to use a practical activity. Through play, we entice them to use their muscles, and then we give the parent a play program that they can use and follow through.”
Bronstein agrees, “For therapy with children, I always say there is a fine line between stress and distress. We need to stress the child, move them into more challenging activities so they can grow and achieve new skills. However, we do not want to stress so much that it becomes distress.”
Delmonico advises that “picky eating could be a sign of problem eating,” and Abilities Therapy Network utilizes the Sequential Oral Sensory (S.O.S.) approach to work on this with children.
Warburg says that in her practice, she has had highly motivated teens or tweens with special needs visit with a specific goal in mind. One young man was a football player-turned-coach who wanted to be able to dress in a button down shirt, and one girl wanted to be able to wear a special dress for her bat mitzvah. Both were ultimately desensitized to the offending material.
Over the years, Warburg has seen a much greater awareness of the benefits of occupational therapy.
“Many laws have been passed allowing occupational therapy as an entitlement,” she says. “There is recognition of the value of OT in allowing people to function in everyday life.”