When mentioning in passing the need for occupational therapy for toddlers I often hear a variation of the joke that children don’t need occupational therapy – they don’t have an occupation! While this may at first seem slightly humorous, in fact toddlers do have an occupation. They are working to learn the rules of our adult society every day. They are trying to learn fine motor skills so they can hold a pen to write up a report one day. They are trying to learn visual perceptual skills so they are able to take unspoken cues from friends and future coworkers. These skills, and others, are essential for a child to lean on if they are going to be successful adults. This is the occupation of a toddler, learning to be a grown up.
Occupational therapy for toddlers helps them learn these skills in a safe and nonthreatening environment. For many toddlers with sensory processing impairments, a normal environment filled with loud noises, warm hugs, or tumbling activities can seem like a very unsafe environment. They begin to feel out of place with their families and other children because they do not like the same things, or they have trouble doing what their peers are doing. An occupational therapist that specializes in children’s disorders will be able to help the child through activities and a slow introduction to various sensory experiences learn to process this previously confusing information.
The first step in enrolling a toddler in occupational therapy will likely come from a routine well baby check up at his or her pediatrician’s office. The pediatrician may notice some developmental milestones are not being met and recommend testing. An occupational therapist will then meet with the child and his or her parent(s) to play games that assess developmental skills. If the child is found to have a delay or impairment, weekly therapy sessions will follow where mom or dad will sit with the child while he or she works with the therapist.
While there are numerous types of children who will receive occupational therapy, the two most common diagnoses which result in therapy are autism and developmental delays. There is no one specific format for the therapy because each child’s therapy will be tailored to meet his or her needs as they present at the time of testing and as they develop throughout the therapy sessions. A child may begin working on staying on task and hand strength, then move on to using scissors and holding a pencil.
One of the most important factors in determining the success of occupational therapy for toddlers is the reinforcement they receive in their home. Parents will likely be given exercises and tasks to complete with the toddler during the days they do not have therapy sessions. The ability of the parents to follow through will greatly determine how quickly, and to what extent, the toddler benefits from their occupational therapy.
As an occupational therapist what has your experience been in dealing with parents? Have they been supportive or resistant? Can you tell when a parent is working with a child at home?