What is occupational therapy?

Occupational therapy (OT) helps people to develop or recover daily living skills. For young children, occupational therapists (OTs) often work on fundamental skills such as dressing, eating, printing and self-regulation. Helping the child learn the skill is only one approach. Occupational therapists might also work on changing the person’s environment or modifying specific tasks so that the child can perform them. For example, simple changes like a keyboard with larger buttons or an adapted grip on a fork can help a child who would otherwise struggle.

A formal diagnosis is not needed to begin OT. The therapist starts by understanding how the child functions in their “occupation.” For children, an occupation is any activity they would need to perform on a daily basis. This includes self-care tasks (e.g., eating and dressing), learning activities in the classroom and play. From there, the therapist can develop priorities, goals and a treatment plan. The treatment plan can include direct treatment by the therapist, home activities and, in some cases, treatment by another discipline (e.g., behaviour therapy, speech-language pathology).

A therapy session often involves breaking down an activity step by step and helping the child to master the steps they are struggling with.

Occupational therapists can treat a child at a clinic or do home or school visits where they can work with the child in his or her everyday environment.

Who can benefit from occupational therapy?

Children of all abilities can benefit from OT, including those living with:

  • Attention difficulties, including Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)
  • Autism Spectrum Disorder
  • Sensory processing difficulties
  • Printing and keyboarding skills
  • Picky eating
  • Movement disorders and fine motor skill delay
  • Global Developmental Delay
  • Cognitive deficits
  • Learning disorders
  • Cerebral Palsy
  • Down Syndrome
  • Acquired Brain Injury

In all cases, being able to do everyday tasks makes the child more independent and self-confident. Having succeeded in overcoming a challenge, they will realize that they have what it takes to master new skills. OT can make a big difference for the family as a whole; for example, when a child learns to safely eat a variety of foods without the risk of choking, it improves the quality of meal times for the whole family.

What role can parents play?

Parents can help by encouraging their child and calming their anxieties. The therapist will explain what parents and caregivers can do to support the child.

For example, children who have difficulty sitting still can use a modified seating arrangement to either improve posture and support or satisfy the need for stimulation. This may lead to improved concentration for homework or eating. That said, a parent’s main role is to be a parent; the therapist will do the detailed OT work.

How does Morneau Shepell use occupational therapy?

Morneau Shepell’s Children’s Support Solutions is family-centred and interdisciplinary. This means that we always start with the questions, “What will work for this child?” and “What is right for the family?” If OT will be useful, then we will propose a treatment plan.

However, we do not think solely in terms of OT; we think about the mix of therapies that will help the child. In the Morneau Shepell model, the therapists are not just under one roof; they plan together, train together and work together on a client file. It is an integrated approach to helping the family.

How are therapists trained and certified?

Occupational therapists in Canada hold a master’s degree or equivalent in occupational therapy. They are licensed by provincial Colleges or Orders according to each province’s certification standards, which may include specific continuing education requirements and certification by a national board exam.

OTs may have additional training in particular techniques; for example:

  • Neuro-Developmental Treatment (NDT)
  • Oral Placement Therapy and Feeding Techniques
  • Handwriting Without Tears
  • Therapeutic Listening
  • Sensory Integration
  • Astronaut Training