Occupational therapy (OT) helps people who struggle to do everyday tasks because of poor motor skills. OT’s treatment focuses on helping people with a physical, sensory, or cognitive disability be as independent as possible in all areas of their lives. For kids, that includes tasks that are part of learning and functioning well at school. OT works on the skills kids need to do the things they struggle with, from zipping their coat to writing and typing. Helping the kids to improve their cognitive, physical, sensory, and motor skills and enhance their self-esteem and sense of accomplishment.
Kids Who Might Need Occupational Therapy
According to the AOTA, kids with these medical problems might benefit from OT:
- birth injuries or birth defects
- sensory processing disorders
- traumatic injuries (brain or spinal cord)
- learning problems
- autism/pervasive developmental disorders
- juvenile rheumatoid arthritis
- mental health or behavioral problems
- broken bones or other orthopedic injuries
- developmental delays
- post-surgical conditions
- spina bifida
- traumatic amputations
- severe hand injuries
- multiple sclerosis, cerebral palsy, and other chronic illnesses
Occupational therapists might:
- help kids work on fine motor skills so they can grasp and release toys and develop good handwriting skills
- address hand–eye coordination to improve kids’ play and school skills (hitting a target, batting a ball, copying from a blackboard, etc.)
- help kids with severe developmental delays learn basic tasks (such as bathing, getting dressed, brushing their teeth, and feeding themselves)
- help kids with behavioral disorders maintain positive behaviors in all environments (e.g., instead of hitting others or acting out, using positive ways to deal with anger, such as writing about feelings or participating in a physical activity)
- teach kids with physical disabilities the coordination skills needed to feed themselves, use a computer, or increase the speed and legibility of their handwriting
- evaluate a child’s need for specialized equipment, such as wheelchairs, splints, bathing equipment, dressing devices, or communication aids
- work with kids who have sensory and attentional issues to improve focus and social skills
OT consists of exercises and activities to build specific skills that are weak. For example, if a child has very messy handwriting, therapy may include multisensory techniques to help with handwriting. If a child struggles with focus, the therapist might have that child do full-body exercises before sitting down to do homework.
The earlier a child starts OT, the more effective it tends to be. Being able to do basic tasks can also help build up kids’ self-esteem and confidence, which can drop when they are struggling, especially in front of their peers.
Kids who struggle with motor skills tend to be uncoordinated and are often clumsy. Being seen as “different” can put them at risk of being bullied and make them feel like victims.
How OT Can Help With Specific Challenges
Kids with certain challenges often need OT. One condition that impacts motor skills is developmental coordination disorder (sometimes called dyspraxia.) There are a number of activities therapists might use to help improve skills.
One exercise for fine motor skills might be for kids to pick up items with tweezers. To help with hand-dominance, kids may practice cutting out things with scissors. To build gross motor skills, kids may do jumping jacks, catch balls of different sizes, or run obstacle courses. Learn more about how OTs work with kids who need help with motor skills.
OT can also be a big help for kids who have trouble with sensory processing. When kids struggle to process sensory information, they may overreact or underreact to things they hear, see, taste, touch, or smell. That can lead kids to have meltdowns or become hyperactive.
In this case, therapists might design a sensory diet. This plan is a series of physical activities and accommodations tailored to give kids the sensory input they need. OTs may also use heavy work to help kids who seek or avoid certain kinds of sensory input.
Occupational therapy may also help kids with other challenges like dyslexia, visual processing issues, executive functioning issues, and dysgraphia.