A 12-year-old I knew had shaky writing resembling that of a 6-year-old, and she was advised to be shown to an occupational therapist to improve her writing skills.

Her parents struggled with the question: ” What does an occupational therapist do for a child who is not autistic ? ”

They went anyway, and saw a remarkable improvement in her day-to-day tasks in just about seven months! Occupational therapy carries a common assumption that it is meant for children with special needs. However, the truth is that it can benefit any child who needs development of basic academic, social and academic skills. Minor developmental delays, issues with fine and gross motor, problems with visual perception are all conditions that benefit from occupational therapy.

Occupational therapy carries a common assumption that it is meant for children with special needs. However, the truth is that it can benefit any child who needs development of basic academic, social and academic skills. Minor developmental delays, issues with fine and gross motor, problems with visual perception are all conditions that benefit from occupational therapy.

The truth is – Occupational therapists (OTs) work with all kinds of children and even adults.

What is occupational therapy?

Occupational therapy is designed to help children achieve independence in their day-to-day activities. An occupational therapist helps children who have difficulties in going through simple,  yet essential routines- refining their fine motor skills, sensory issues, academic and social skills and more.

For example, my daughter has difficulties in reading, writing and Math. Neha Rastogi, a paediatric OT who practices in HSR Layout, Bangalore works with us. She uses sensory integration to help my daughter in skills that impact her learning.

These include skills like left-right integration, mid-line crossing, planning and sequencing, gross motor skills, proximal stability, balance and coordination. These may sound like mere terms but they are important in rewiring the brain and to prime the child physically to accomplish tasks that need dexterity and strength.

Understanding the function of an Occupational Therapist

“While a teacher would only concentrate on trying to improve handwriting, we assess the child and see how best we can improve the skills required for tasks such as writing or focus. A thorough assessment is taken. We try and find out what the areas we need to work on. Attention, perception, memory or motor planning difficulties; our therapy starts whenever these skills are lagging,”  says Vyshnavee Mohan Ram, an Occupational Therapist who works with PlayStreet, an organisation in Bangalore that caters to the needs of neuro-diverse children.

There are no fixed exercises. An OT program is designed for each child individually because each child is different.

The main frame of reference we use is sensory integration and visual perception, as these two areas form the basis for learning.”

Why do we need occupational therapy?

Our children receive massive stimulation and input not through natural means and people, but through digital devices. They are hardly outdoors, and playtime for children has transformed into ‘play dates.’ Our fear for the safety of our children has limited their ability to explore the world on their own terms – leading to a variety of reasons on why a child is rendered unable to accomplising simple, everyday tasks that are developmentally appropriate. Occupational therapy helps bridge this development gap.

Here are some of the areas that occupational therapists work in solving:

–  Problems in handwriting.

– Learning difficulties

– Problems with hand-eye coordination and motor skills

– Developmental delays

– Autism, ADHD and cerebral palsy

Where does occupational therapy work?

Vyshnavee asserts, “One of our children could not be categorised either as a child with ADHD or learning difficulties. His parents were worried about writing skills and also because he was not able to finish tasks and work on time. In fact, he was unable to sustain attention and every 5 or 10 minutes, he would need to get up and walk around.

I used a combination of Brain Gym and sensory integration. I developed activities that worked on motor planning, solving, coping with changes in his environment, and also used the vestibular rope, wherein he had to involve the whole body to sustain attention. This improved his focus tremendously.

Explaining her work with a seven-year-old child who greatly benefited from occupational therapy, Neha says, “He came with the problem of writing slowly and not completing his class work. When I assessed him, I found he had poor co-contraction of core muscles. His left right-integration was also poor and he did not have good visual perception skills. He was also a messy eater. After working with him for 5 months and for two times a week, he has picked up speed in copying from the board. His left-right integration has improved tremendously. He can even juggle 3 tennis ball simultaneously and he eats very neatly with one hand. The child no longer needs Occupation Therapy and is doing very well.”

“It’s so much fun! If a lay person sees what I do in therapy, he or she would think that the child and I are only playing. But whatever the child chooses or does in my session is designed by me to improve a certain skill. Whether he is swinging or jumping or playing with clay, there is a reason behind it.

My daughter simply loves her sessions with Neha and is never too tired to attend one, even after school. She loves the obstacle course that Neha designs. She also loves all the activities on the swing, especially when Neha swings my daughter very high and very fast, and my daughter, while swinging, also has to solve a wooden puzzle on top of the swing. This from a child who used to be scared of swings and heights.

Choosing an occupational therapist

According to Neha, the biggest criterion when looking for an OT is to make sure they are suitably qualified. “Ideally, an occupational therapist should have a Masters in Occupational Therapy or at least a Bachelors in Occupational Therapy. There is a lot of malpractice these days, especially in paediatric occupational therapy, as the demand is more. Parents should make sure that the therapist has a degree in occupational therapy and is not just a physiotherapist. The two are very different.”

An occupational therapist who is specialised in adult neuro rehab works with patients with strokes, spinal cord injury, Parkinson’s and many other issues to make them independent in everyday activities. It is a broad area of expertise. When it concerns children, they help children in important life skills.

Learning and development is a vast resource with tremendous potential. As a parent, I am extremely indebted to the nurturing efforts of occupational therapists.

A version of this post written by Shweta Sharan, author and founder of Bangalore Schools,  first appeared in Buzzing Bubs. 

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