Occupational Therapy

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Who are Occupational Therapists or Occupational Therapy Assistants?

They are skilled professionals with strong knowledge in a person's:

  • Psychological
  • Physical
  • Emotional
  • Sensory
  • Cognitive
  • Social makeup

Occupational therapists can evaluate how your child's diagnosis (or risk for one) is affecting his or her participation in life, and customize techniques to overcome any barriers the child/family may be experiencing.

What can occupational therapy do for children?

Your child's life is made up of occupations, or everyday activities. These occupations include:

  • Playing
  • Learning
  • Sleeping and resting
  • Interacting with friends
  • Getting dressed
  • Other daily activities

Occupational therapy supports children of all ages, newborns to teenagers, by incorporating the occupations that are important to you and your child into the intervention process.

What are common diagnoses occupational therapists work with?

  • 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
  • Cancer
  • Severe hand injuries
  • Multiple sclerosis, cerebral palsy, and other chronic illnesses
  • Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)

When to refer to occupational therapy?

The core of occupational therapy is to promote participation. Some examples include, but are not limited to:

  • Helping a child who has concentration challenges to succeed in school
  • Supporting a child with autism to socialize
  • Helping a child who uses a wheelchair to play with his or her peers
  • Helping a child with a developmental disability get dressed independently
  • Helping all children play with toys or use tools such as crayons - addressing whatever may be a particular child's skills and needs
  • Helping 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)

Other areas occupational therapy focuses on are:

  • Prevention
  • Promoting healthy lifestyles
  • Addressing mental health
  • Anti-bullying strategies
  • Ways to address obesity
  • Promoting good school design (environmental needs) with teachers

If you see any delays in fine motor, gross motor, sensory, visual-motor/perceptual, social-emotional, activities of daily living skills affecting a child's everyday performance, please refer to Speech Matters Occupational Therapy program.

Occupational Therapy Terms:

Developmental Coordination Discorder (DCD)

Research shows that DCD is currently present in a t least 6-8% of children. DD affects the way children are able to adapt, plan, and control their movements. Children with DCD have a harder time learning new skills to problem solve and engage in tasks such as writing, dressing, and playing. Social skills and learning ability may also be negatively affected. Children with DCD’s confidence and participation often deteriorate over time, contributing to academic and developmental difficulties. If you feel your child may be having difficulty with coordination, occupational therapy can often help.

Sensory Processing

Sensory processing is the way that the brain interprets and integrates sensations throughout the body. These senses are regulated and transmitted in behavioral and motor responses subconsciously every minute of every day. Sensory processing deficits have been linked to decreased mood, and ability to cope with certain activities. The body requires proper processing of sensory input to produce functional motor output. Therefore, sensory processing difficulty may cause difficulty in motor skills in certain children. Treatment for sensory processing is called sensory integration, and involves a specialized plan to aid the brain in processing and integrating sensory input. Many people only know about the five senses, and do not realize that there are actually seven! The seven senses are taste, smell, touch, hearing, sight, vestibular, and proprioceptive. Some researchers also express that there may be eight senses. The 8 th sense is called interception, which is the body’s internal feeling (hunger, thirst, drives, pain, etc.).


Vestibular processing is essential for children, as it supports and is linked to other sensory systems. The vestibular system is responsible for balance, and helps your brain determine where your body is in space. It is also closely related to the auditory and visual sensory systems as the vestibular headquarters is located in the inner ear. Balancing the regulation of the vestibular system has been associated with improved attention and calming in many children. A child may be under-regulated or over-regulated in regard to vestibular functioning. Common signs of vestibular dysregulation are fatigue, constant rocking or spinning, head banging or overheard shaking, and side-looking. It is important that every child receive the “just right” amount of vestibular input as they develop. An occupational therapist is trained to help your child target the vestibular processing that is needed to regulate their sensory system.


Proprioception is the way that your sensory system processes information from the joints and muscles about the body’s position, stretch, weight, movement, and change in position. Our proprioceptive system aids us in grading movements to accomplish everyday tasks. The following are a few of the signs that children are not processing proprioceptive input functionally: clumsiness, difficulty walking down steps, liking to crash into things, missing the chair to sit, hand flapping, hitting, etc.

Visual Motor Integration (VMI)

VMI is the way that your eyes coordinate with your hands to complete tasks. The eyes are guiding the activity while the hands are controlling the activity. Therefore, even small tasks require a joint effort from multiple systems at once. VMI is essential for drawing, copying, and writing. VMI is required to copy basic shapes which is a prerequisite to writing letters. If a child’s handwriting is disjointed or does not flow they may be struggling with VMI.


Handwriting is a complex skill that sometimes requires special attention from an occupational therapist. It has been proven that certain children benefit from cursive writing rather than print, even at a young age. There may be other compensatory methods or adjustments to the environment that may help with writing as well. If your child is struggling with illegible writing, an occupational therapist can determine if there are underlying skills that may need to be addressed such as visual motor integration. Progress requires taking things one step at a time.

Fine Motor Skills (FM)

All children need to be provided daily opportunities and coaching to develop these intricate and detailed skills of the hand which we refer to as fine motor skills. FM skills consist of strength and coordination of the small muscles of the hand. They also include reaching, grasping, and manipulation of objects. Engaging a child in motivating activities that build fine motor skills can prepare children for many important “daily occupations” such as the ability to hold a pencil, or placing body parts into a Mr. Potato Head, etc.

Core Strength

Poor core strength can cause postural instability and gross motor delays. Core strength also indirectly affects the development of fine motor ability as well, as core strength is the foundation to all other muscle coordination and strength. A child’s core begins to strengthen as a baby during “tummy time”, when a baby learns to lift their head and torso, pushing off the floor with the upper body. Children further develop core strength by everyday activities like playing outdoors, running, jumping, climbing, crawling, and playing. Poor core strength presents as slouching shoulders, poor endurance, poor balance, W-sitting, etc. Research has shown that children with better core strength also have better fine motor skills and writing ability. Overall, children that develop good core strength have increased self-assurance, and endure tasks longer.


Self-regulation is the ability to maintain a level of alertness appropriate to a given activity. Self- regulation is a process that develops naturally as a child matures. Yet, some children need help developing self-regulation. Self-regulation is heavily dependent on attention, sleep cycles, emotional control, and transition between routines. Much of the body’s ability to self-regulate is driven by a child’s arousal level. Arousal has to do with the level of alertness, how the child is feeling inside, and how a child’s sensory system is processing information presented.

Visual Perception

Proper vision is more than passing a basic vision screening. A child with 20/20 vision may still have difficulty with visual processing. Visual processing is how the brain receives and interprets the information that is seen. A child with VP difficulties may have trouble with age appropriate mazes, hidden pictures or puzzles, sight words, writing, finding information, noticing small differences, etc. Deficits in VP may underlie motor and academic issues, and occupational therapy is often imperative to a child’s success.

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