You may have heard your occupational therapist use the term “sensory diet.” It’s how we describe those activities employed to help assist children with sensory processing disorder. The technical term for these activities is “sensory integration intervention.” Many children with autism spectrum disorder are also diagnosed with sensory processing disorder, but not everyone with SPD has ASD (or visa versa).
Here in Southwest Florida, the beach is a main draw for tourists and residents alike. Our occupational therapists know it’s a great place to help your child feed their sensory diet.. Exploring sensory input – from the gritty sand to the bubbly waves – can provide just the right amount of stimulation and calming for your child, and it can be adapted depending on your child’s needs.
Communication delays occur when a child doesn’t meet key milestones that would reflect typical speech development.
For example, by 8 months, a child should be responding to their name and recognizing themselves in a mirror. By 12 months, they should be saying a couple of words, recognizing familiar sounds and pointing to objects. By 18 months, they should have 10-to-20 words and start to combine two word phrases (i.e., “all gone,” “bye-bye, momma,” etc.). (All this is established by researchers at The University of Michigan, and these milestones are pretty standard and widely accepted.)
If your child isn’t meeting these milestones, our pediatric speech therapists would encourage you to raise the concern with your pediatrician or seek a free consultation from one of our therapists to determine if intervention may be necessary. The effect of a communication delay goes far beyond just not being able to say words. Too often, communication delays spur behavior problems.
Really if you think about it, behavior IS communication – perhaps the most basic form of it. Tempers, tears, tantrums – even if it seems nonsensical to adults – these are ways children communicate their needs to adults. As they grow older and their communication skills expand, they no longer need to resort to those behaviors to ensure their needs are met. They can point to objects. They can request things. They can say no. They can understand there are times they must wait (even if they don’t like it). Children with communication delays – those who are impaired in their ability to communicate with others and to understand when people are communicating with them – are going to lag in developing those same coping mechanisms, and that means the behavior problems will continue. Speech therapy and ABA (applied behavioral analysis) can help them catch up.
At FOCUS Therapy in Fort Myers, we understand that when children are lagging behind developmentally, interconnected services are vital to helping them catch up. For instance, children with language delays who clearly need speech therapy many times also benefit from occupational therapy to work on things like improved social interaction or classroom skills. Children with conditions like autism, down syndrome, brain injuries or ADHD struggle with speech, but also need ABA therapy to help curb problem behaviors. Similarly, occupational therapy helps them master self-care (i.e., brushing their teeth, feeding themselves, managing their time, etc.), while physical therapy is effective in helping them accomplish those goals by strengthening key muscle groups.
The benefit of interconnected services was recently further underscored in a study published in The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology. Study authors found that when a child’s fine motor skills improved, so too did their vocabulary development – to a pretty significant degree. Researchers concluded this lends credence to the “nimble hands, nimble minds” theory of child development.
The “nimble hands, nimble minds” theory is that when we focus on improving a child’s motor skills (i.e., using hands to manipulate a puzzle, grasp a pencil, cut with scissors, etc.), we will also boost cognitive learning. One reason is that kids tend to “get it” more when the cognitive skill sets we’re trying to teach are rooted in some kind of hands-on physical activity. So for example, when our FOCUS therapists are teaching a child to understand and communicate about spacial concepts (over, under, in, out, bigger, smaller, etc.), we will usually do so through some form of physical play, like building blocks or coloring or putting a puzzle together or climbing into a ball pit. Because we have rooted the cognitive lesson in a physical action, the child is more likely to retain it (and have fun doing it!).
FOCUS is gearing up to begin offering applied behavioral analysis, or ABA therapy (behavior therapy), to children in Southwest Florida. ABA is one of the most effective early intervention treatments for children with autism spectrum disorder and other conditions. Behavior therapy rewards positive behavior, and can be applied to a host of life aspects, including nutrition.
A 2014 study of 6,000 children and teens on the autism spectrum revealed they are more than twice as likely to be overweight and five times as likely to be obese as their typical peers, which in turn translates to many other associated health issues. A more recent study of nearly 50,000 children with autism in the U.S. revealed much higher rates of conditions often associated with obesity, including high cholesterol and hypertension.
Researchers speculate there could be several different issues going on. Things that can make them susceptible to unhealthy eating patterns include:
- Heightened senses;
- Aversion to new tastes and textures;
- Higher rates of gastrointestinal and sleep issues;
- Higher likelihood of being on medications for anxiety, depression or epilepsy that can affect weight gain;
- Fondness for routine.
Further, they tend to have social and motor skill impairments and have an affinity for screen time, which can result in limited physical activity. What’s especially concerning is that a 2015 study found that unlike a lot of typical children who outgrow their weight problems in their teens, children with autism too often do not. We aim to help change that.
Researchers at Florida State University’s School of Communication Science and Disorders just announced a breakthrough study regarding anticipated speech therapy for children with hearing loss.
Teaming up with a group of international scientists and accessing high-tech brain scans and algorithms, the researchers were able to ascertain which parts of the brain were most associated with speech learning among children with cochlear implants. By identifying this, the team hopes to develop a tool to help more accurately predict which children would need more intensive speech therapy.
The study was recently published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, and the hope is that the findings of this research will help parents and clinicians identify more quickly which children are going to need a regimen of more speech therapy and speech-language support once they have had a cochlear implant.
Handwriting is a part of our daily lives, whether we’re jotting down a shopping list or taking important notes at a meeting or filling out forms at a bank. Right or wrong, people make judgments about us based on our handwriting, and a failure to conquer this skill can prove a hindrance in basic tasks. Fort Myers occupational therapists at FOCUS are committed to helping children in Southwest Florida master the skill of handwriting.
January 23rd marked the recognition of National Handwriting Day, as designated by the Writing Instrument Manufacturers Association in 1977 – coinciding with John Hancock’s birthday. (You may remember from history class John Hancock was one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence who infamously penned his signature in an over-large font).
It’s not just our signature that says a lot about us. Handwriting is a form of communication, and our occupational therapists believe it’s essential for the promotion of clear thought. Issues with handwriting can be a red flag of certain developmental problems in children, and it can potentially hinder one’s ability to learn because so many instructors rely heavily on written coursework to grade progress. While it’s true that an increasing amount of our communications are conducted via keyboard these days, handwriting has not been abandoned. We see it in medical notes, prescriptions, journalistic work and more. The ability to write legibly helps us not just in student coursework, but in many tasks of everyday living – and that’s ultimately what occupational therapy is all about.
Play dates are often a welcome respite for many parents, offering an opportunity for the adults to interact as much as the children. What many parents may not realize, though, is that these are golden opportunities to model socialization for your child. Our speech therapists at FOCUS Fort Myers recognize that children learn most from us as role models by watching us, and then practicing it for themselves. For a child who is struggling to socialize, play dates can be so beneficial.
Part of what our pediatric therapists at FOCUS Fort Myers work on with all “our kids” is regulation of emotional responses. Let’s face it: We all get angry. It takes time to learn to control our responses, and even adults still struggle with it. It can be especially difficult for children who have been diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). We recognize it;s also sometimes challenging for parents to walk the fine line between healthy expression of emotion and losing one’s temper. That’s true for ALL parents at some time or another, but it’s especially true for those with children who have ADHD.
But here is reason to keep trying: A recent study by researchers with The Ohio State University, published in the journal Clinical Psychological Science, found that when parents reduced harsh parenting approaches (i.e., criticism, yelling, physical punishment, etc.), it had a powerful calming effect on children with ADHD. By instead using positive reinforcement, kids were more responsive and cooperative.
The researchers delved into what they identified as the physiological markers of emotional regulation within children of preschool age who had been diagnosed with ADHD. They evaluated these markers after different types of parent and child disciplinary interactions. What they discovered was that when parents used less physical discipline, less yelling, etc., and instead focused problem-solving, their children responded better and the discipline was more effective.
Sometimes children with speech and language delays need a bit of additional help learning about social situations and appropriate responses. Our speech therapists in Fort Myers know one tool that has proven extremely useful is “Social Stories.”
A social story is basically what it sounds like: It’s a short, simple story intended to teach children what to expect in certain social settings. These short books, which include pictures of the child and familiar settings, don’t have to be fancy. They can incorporate photos you shoot on your smartphone and print out on your computer. A therapist can craft or help you create a social story for help with certain scenarios in which your child seems to be struggling. When the story is read repeatedly to the child, combined with images of themselves and the difficult scenario they are confronting, it can be powerful. Social stories can also help those with language delays and deficits to understand certain nuances of interpersonal communication – giving them tools to interact in a manner that is both appropriate and effective.
Social stories were first developed in the early 1990s by Carol Gray, a Michigan school teacher whose four children were diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. She explained it helps children understand what can be difficult for those with language delays or deficits to comprehend.
Motor planning is the ability to plan and carry out motor tasks. As our occupational therapists in Fort Myers know, this can be especially difficult for children with cerebral palsy. Early intervention is critical because motor planning is essential for every day functioning. When one has a deficit in motor planning, it’s going to result in motor behavior that is slower, clumsier and inefficient. It can mean physical activities are tougher to learn, retain and generalize. They may end up appearing awkward when trying to carry out a specific task. Occupational therapy helps children with cerebral palsy by working on these skills day-in, day-out, using fun activities to help them master each element of the activity.
A recent longitudinal study published in the Journal of Clinical Neuropsychology explored this connection between motor planning and cerebral palsy. Researchers closely followed 22 children with cerebral palsy alongside 22 other neuro-typical children of the same age. Each child was asked to perform a task that required those involved sacrificing their initial posture comfort to achieve an end-state comfort. Researchers made repeated observations over the course of a year.
What they discovered was that children with cerebral palsy showed poorer end-state planning when achieving critical angles. Further, unlike those children in the “control group,” those with cerebral palsy did not display improved motor planning skills over the course of a year. Researchers recommended more efforts be made to intervene and enhance motor planning skills for children with cerebral palsy.
At FOCUS Therapy in Fort Myers, we can offer help from both occupational therapists and physical therapists, teaming up together simultaneously or working from the same plan of care, to help a child improve their motor planning skills.