What is Pediatric Occupational Therapy?

Pediatric occupational therapy helps children who have disabilities with daily activities to reach their full potential in school, at home, and in all areas of their lives. Pediatric occupational therapists also help kids develop developmental skills like writing, drawing, and coloring. They use games, puzzles, arts and crafts, or other activities to help children acquire these new or lost skills.

So often I get asked. How can you be an occupational therapist with children? They don't have jobs! No, they don't have jobs, but they do have occupations!

What is the definition of occupation?

According to WFOT: “In occupational therapy, occupations refer to the everyday activities that people do as individuals, in families and with communities to occupy time and bring meaning and purpose to life. Occupations include things people need to, want to and are expected to do.”

Where do pediatric occupational therapists work?

Pediatric occupational therapists (OTs) work on improving a child's development in a variety of settings, including:

  • hospitals and clinics
  • early childhood education programs
  • in the home
  • schools or preschools
  • neonatal intensive care unit
  • telehealth

Basically, anywhere that children are may receive services are setting pediatric OT can practice.

Since early intervention services (pediatric occupational therapy from birth to three) are provided in the child's natural environment, (Sec. 303.126 Early intervention services in natural environmentsI have treated children at a store and at parks! 

The variety of settings is one of the things that makes pediatric occupational therapy a great profession.

What is the history of Occupational Therapy for Kids?

Occupational therapy has been around for over 100 years! The first OTs worked with adults to help them recover after accidents or injuries. Today, OTs help children recover from accidents or injuries, but also work with all kids who need extra support.

In 1965, an article was published by Dr. Naomi Feil of the Western Pennsylvania Hospital describing therapeutic play as an interaction between the environment and child together with parental assistance.

Although occupational therapy is not new, pediatric occupational therapists have evolved over time. OTs used to focus mainly on helping children with physical disabilities learn life skills that they would need as adults—like cooking or driving a car. Now pediatric OTs work with kids of all abilities and ages in order to help them develop the best possible skills for their current stage of life.

What are some common disabilities associated with occupational therapy for children?

Occupational therapists treat a wide range of physical and mental conditions that can cause problems for children, including:

What kind of skills and daily tasks does pediatric occupational therapy address?

OTs may work with children on a variety of skills, depending on their specific needs. For example:

– oral motor and self-feeding skills (like chewing and spoon-feeding)

– self-care (like dressing and hand washing)

– social and communication skills (like turn-taking, eye contact, and sharing)

– coping mechanisms (like sensory regulation)

– mobility (like crawling and sitting)

– fine-motor (like picking up small objects and buttoning)

– visual-motor (like handwriting and playing with toys)

– and more!

What activities do pediatric OTs use to help children?

Occupational therapists play a variety of games and activities with kids, depending on the child's specific needs. For example, OTs might use these activities to work on certain skills:

– building with blocks or Legos, which helps children develop fine motor control

– coloring, drawing, and other art activities to develop children's creativity

– playdough or sand for tactile sensory input. This helps children who struggle with tactile defensiveness.

– puzzles and board games to develop visual motor skills (like hand-eye coordination)

– block towers and other building activities, which help children to develop their spatial awareness.

What to expect at your child's OT evaluation Ebook

Learn what to expect at your child's first occupational therapy visit

Does your child have an OT evaluation scheduled? Learn what to expect!

How do pediatric OTs improve client function and performance?

Occupational therapists focus on helping children develop specific skills in five main areas. These include:

– self-care skills

– mobility and locomotion skills (like crawling, rolling, or scooting)

– fine motor skills (which include skills like buttoning, handwriting, and drawing)

– visual-motor skills (like hand-eye coordination)

– sensory processing (which includes physical, social, and emotional skills)

Occupational therapy versus physical therapy with children.

Although pediatric occupational therapists and physical therapists work together to help children with disabilities, they have different focuses. Occupational therapy works on a more holistic level than physical therapy, which is focused on fixing a physical injury or specific problem.

Occupational therapy focuses on the skills and abilities of daily living. While physical therapy focuses on the body and physical injuries or problems. Occupational therapy uses activity analysis to break down daily living skills to analyze why a child is having difficulty with those tasks and then treats the underlying cause of the issue. That difficulty can be in several different areas such as physical, emotional, sensory processing, etc.

What qualifies a child for occupational therapy?

Children who qualify or require occupational therapy will show delays in their development and ability to perform daily or adaptive tasks. “Qualifying” for occupational therapy is a relative term. It depends on who the payer is and where the therapy is being done. School-based versus community-based versus medical models, will all have their own qualifications and decision-making process on if a child requires or needs occupational therapy (OT) services.

Can an occupational therapist diagnose autism?

Even though occupational therapists work a lot with children with autism. Unfortunately, pediatric occupational therapists cannot diagnose autism. OTs can help kids with ASD develop skills that support their goals and needs—which may include learning life skills that will help them manage their autism.

Final Thoughts

Pediatric occupational therapists treat a wide range of conditions that can cause difficulty for children, including autism spectrum disorder (ASD), developmental coordination disorder (DCD), sensory processing disorders (SPDs), cerebral palsy (CP), fine and gross motor delays.

Pediatric occupational therapy also works to improve client function by helping them develop specific skills in five main areas which include self-care tasks involving eating food correctly without spills or choking when they eat or dress. OTs can also help with mobility and locomotion skills like crawling, rolling, or scooting. The third area is fine motor which includes skills like buttoning, handwriting, or drawing. Next visual-motor deals with hand-eye coordination tasks which could be puzzles or playing games that involve following instructions on how to place colored shapes in order from biggest to smallest. Finally, sensory processing is included in OT work to help children manage their anxiety or emotional issues which could be calming activities that would relax them.

Pediatric Occupational therapy is a great career with a lot of variety both in settings OTs can work in, and also the children and families they serve.

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