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Occupational Therapy

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Jason, 10, was left with a brain injury after a bicycle accident. To improve some of his cognitive (thinking) skills, comprehension skills, and coordination, Jason's doctors recommended that he receive occupational therapy (OT).

At first, his parents were doubtful that OT could benefit their son and wondered if it was more appropriate for adults. But after watching the activities and seeing Jason's improvements, they felt hopeful that Jason was on the road to recovery.

Occupational Therapy Basics

Occupational therapy treatment focuses on helping people achieve independence in all areas of their lives. OT can help kids with various needs improve their cognitive, physical, and motor skills and enhance their self-esteem and sense of accomplishment.

Some people may think that occupational therapy is only for adults; kids, after all, do not have occupations. But a child's main job is playing and learning, and occupational therapists can evaluate kids' skills for playing, school performance, and daily activities and compare them with what is developmentally appropriate for that age group.

According to the American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA), in addition to dealing with an someone's physical well-being, OT practitioners address psychological, social, and environmental factors that can affect functioning in different ways. This approach makes OT a vital part of health care for some kids.

Kids Who Might Need Occupational Therapy

According to the AOTA, kids with these medical problems might benefit from OT:

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 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 learn anger-management techniques (i.e., 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

How Physical Therapy and OT Differ

Although both physical and occupational therapy help improve kids' quality of life, there are differences. Physical therapy (PT) deals with pain, strength, joint range of motion, endurance, and gross motor functioning, whereas OT deals more with fine motor skills, visual-perceptual skills, cognitive skills, and sensory-processing deficits.

Occupational Therapy Practitioners

There are two professional levels of occupational practice — occupational therapist (OT) and occupational therapist assistant (OTA).

Since 2007, an OT must complete a master's degree program (previously, only a bachelor's degree was required). An OTA is only required to complete an associate's degree program and can carry out treatment plans developed by the occupational therapist but can't complete evaluations.

All occupational therapy practitioners must complete supervised fieldwork programs and pass a national certification examination. A license to practice is mandatory in most states, as are continuing education classes to maintain that licensure.

Occupational therapists work in a variety of settings, including:

  • hospitals
  • schools
  • rehabilitation centers
  • mental health facilities
  • private practices
  • children's clinics
  • nursing homes

Finding Care for Your Child

If you think your child might benefit from occupational therapy, ask your doctor to refer you to a specialist. The school nurse or guidance counselor also might be able to recommend someone based on your child's academic or social performance.

You also can check your local yellow pages, search online, or contact your state's occupational therapy association or a nearby hospital or rehabilitation center for referrals.

However you find an occupational therapist for your child, make sure that your health insurance company covers the program you select.

Reviewed by: Wendy Harron, BS, OTR/L
Date reviewed: July 2010

License

Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice, diagnoses and treatment, consult your doctor.

© 1995–2014 The Nemours Foundation/KidsHealth. All rights reserved.

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