As FOCUS Fort Myers occupational therapists, we help children with disabilities overcome impediments to independence, adapt to the world around them (or adapt the world to them) and acquire the tools necessary to navigate each day. One key component of this is learning appropriate socialization – particularly with peers. Through play-based approaches, our clients learn to recognize personal space, read body language, handle greetings, manage unexpected interactions, participate in conversations, take turns, avoid conflicts and understand and express their emotions.
Problems with socialization for children with disabilities can be compounded when peers’ reactions are overwhelmingly negative. To be fair: It’s natural for any child to be curious, hesitant or possibly even scared when encountering notable differences for the first time. Every parent has at least one story about the time their child said something mortifying in pointing out another person’s differences (usually very loudly, in public, and in a line where there is no quick escape). But the truth is: They’re still learning socialization skills too. It’s a teaching moment.
Talking to your kids about peers with disabilities increases understanding and acceptance, encourages inclusion and can even help reduce bullying (to which children with disabilities are especially vulnerable).
Long-practicing occupational therapists in South Florida know it wasn’t so long ago children with disabilities were far more isolated from society in daily life. The 13 percent of Americans with disabilities were often taught in different classrooms, denied accommodations allowing them access to the same facilities and arbitrarily boxed out of many career choices. The good news is that’s changing, most recently with the U.S. Department of Education’s new policy statement on inclusion in early childhood programs. The DOE policy declares unequivocally that inclusion of children with disabilities from a young age offers maximum benefit and should be every district’s goal.
That means if he or she is not already, your child will soon have daily interaction with at least one peer who has a disability. Helping them understand differences – and framing those differences in a positive way – can make a big difference.
Many of our FOCUS pediatric speech therapists were initially drawn to this field in part because we share a love of language. Sure, some of us are self-professed grammar nerds and logophiles, but in working with kids with special needs, we’ve seen that the real beauty of language is the way it facilitates communication and sparks connections. That’s a universal truth of language, but in helping children overcome speech delays, receptive language deficits or phonological disorders, we’ve come to appreciate language on a whole new level.
In stacking the developmental blocks for communication, social interaction and connection, one of the best (and easiest) things any parent can do: Read bedtime stories. This is especially true for kids with special needs, for whom language doesn’t come easily. Frequent storybook sessions help children learn new words, recognize the importance and subtle differences of tone, inflection and pitch, explore complex feelings and confusing interactions in a safe space and better grasp the intricacies of the world around them.
Most children – even if some have shorter attention spans – love bedtime stories. (Although story time can be anytime, bedtime is ideal – especially if you’re child is antsy – because you’re more likely to have a captive audience just before bed, as opposed to morning or mid-day, unless they still nap. Plus, many parents who work find it difficult to nail down a story time routine in the morning rush or simply can’t swing it on their lunch hour.) Making stories-and-snuggles part of the nightly groove works best for most, gives kids something to look forward to and a chance to wind down. And, as most parents of kids with special needs know, having a routine is a lifeline.
Even if your child doesn’t seem to understand the stories, follow along or pay much attention, research shows they still glean advantages from the one-on-one time, routine and mental exercise. Most speech, ABA and occupational therapists would argue children who struggle with expressive and receptive language skills may even need those bedtime stories more than most.
“Tummy time” is a cute little phrase referencing an essential infant exercise that our pediatric occupational therapists know so many parents come to dread. Per the American Academy of Pediatrics, tummy time should start when your child is a newborn, placing your child (always supervised) on their tummies. This begins with short, 2-to-3-minute increments three times a day and eventually extending it for longer periods of 30-to-40-minutes as they get older.
The whole concept of “tummy time” started back in the early 1990s, when the AAP first began recommending that babies be put “back to sleep,” placed on their backs during naps and at night to reduce the incidence rate of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) – which has really worked! Researchers around the globe report SIDS deaths have decreased 40 to 50 percent since the Back to Sleep campaign began.
The problem is this has been accompanied by a rise in other problems physicians and pediatric occupational therapists believe is related, most commonly plagiocephaly. In layman’s terms, this refers to when infants develop a flat spot on the back of their skull. The American Academy of Physical Therapists reports an “alarming rise” of skull deformation, with one analysis published in the Cleft Palate-Craniofacial Journal finding it rose approximately 600 percent from an incidence rate of 5 percent prior to 1992 (when the “Back to Sleep” campaign began) until now. “Back to Sleep” is almost certainly a driving factor, but also the increasingly inordinate amount of time infants spend in car seats, strollers, etc.
Almost all our FOCUS families are looking forward to a little down time spent with loved ones over the winter holidays. But – You Better Watch Out! As our occupational therapists can explain, a break from the routine of regular school, sports, occupational therapy and other activities for three full weeks can be enough to throw any child off-balance. It’s especially true for children with sensory processing disorder, exacerbated when in lieu of those routines, they’re feeling the sensory overload of parties, people, music, lights, recitals/ plays/ shows, decorations and different foods.
Reducing the risk of over-stimulation and the kind of routine disruption that leads to major meltdowns, our Fort Myers pediatric occupational therapists urge parents to “ease through the season.” That doesn’t mean your child can’t participate in or won’t enjoy your family’s much-cherished traditions. In fact, this time of year can be an excellent learning opportunity for those with sensory challenges or social anxiety. It just means that to maximize the time you have, plan ahead when possible and be mindful of the ways in which your child is experiencing these same events.
Occupational Therapists Want to See a Merrier Season for All
Although it’s been said many times, many ways: Prepare, prepare, prepare. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a huge ordeal, but just take a few minutes to consider where you’re going, whether you’re traveling, how many are likely to be there and what sensory obstacles can you reasonably foresee. For example, if you’re planning a busy day with lots of activities or an extended trip, a weighted or compression vest might go a long way. Keep sensory tools handy. And even if you think your child may not fully understand, take a little time to explain the plan – the night before, the morning of, on the way there and just before you get there. That way they aren’t completely caught off guard.
The FOCUS Fort Myers occupational therapists have years of education and experience in developing goals and a plan-of-care for our pediatric patients, with the goal of promoting the highest level of functioning in everyday life. But as parents, you don’t need a degree to carry these lessons over with at-home occupational therapy exercises. There are many ways you can help strengthen your child’s skills and development with occupational therapy exercises – most with items you probably have around the house, if you need anything at all. The idea is not just to improve your child’s development of independence and life skills, but to have fun and spend quality time doing it.
Some of the strengths and skills you can target with occupational therapy exercises at home include:
- Body awareness
- Visual perception skills
- Language skills
- Muscle strength
- Direction following
- Texture exploration
- Emotional regulation
Because every child is different, it’s important to discuss your plan for at-home occupational therapy exercises with your child’s FOCUS occupational therapist, to ensure safety and the best results.
When you imagine the fastest-growing career, your mind probably zips to something like computer programming or industry giants like Uber and Amazon. Few pay much mind to the health care field, but the reality is it is one of the most rapidly expanding market sectors. What’s more, a sizable part of that growth involves occupational therapists.
Glassdoor just ranked the job of occupational therapist as the No. 4 most desirable of 2018 among the top 50. Additionally, U.S. News & World report ranked the job of occupational therapists as No. 9 in Best Health Care Jobs and No. 11 in the Best 100 Jobs.
Our FOCUS Fort Myers occupational therapists aren’t surprised in the least. First, a growing number of physicians, patients and families are recognizing how extremely effective and profoundly positive it can be – whether an aging stroke patient, a car accident victim or a toddler with autism. Pediatric occupational therapy especially is renowned to be a highly-rewarding field. Florida occupational therapy careers are taking off, with therapists in high demand and garnering well-deserved credit for remarkable progress with patients of all challenges.
Many times, when a child is first diagnosed with autism and referred to occupational therapy in Fort Myers, their first question is, “What the heck is that?” It’s a reasonable one. Most people hear “occupation” and think, “job.” What gets overlooked is the fact that children do have a job: Learning how to take care of themselves and function in society.
Part of that is learning to speak and walk, but it’s also learning how to draw and write, how to eat healthy, how to understand and follow directions, how to exercise proper hygiene and use the toilet, how to look people in the eye when we’re interacting and how to cope with transitioning from one thing to the next.
For a typically-developing child, these lessons will come naturally over time. For a child with autism, intervention is required to help them reach their maximum potential. Occupational therapy is a big part of that puzzle, and at FOCUS Fort Myers, it’s tailored to each child.
Children love to play, and good thing too because it’s great for their development! Our occupational therapists can cite decades of research detailing the ways in which play is a critical to facilitating physical, cognitive and language development for children. It’s one of the reasons FOCUS Therapy Fort Myers makes every session with children one in which we invite our clients if they want to”come play” rather than “come and do some therapy.” We find ways to engage children that they find interesting, while also working on strengthening their deficits.
Outdoor play in particular has many benefits. Children commonly assigned occupational therapy, such as those Down syndrome, autism, cerebral palsy, premature birth or fetal alcohol syndrome, are at high risk for poor motor development. Engaging them in “motor play” as early and often as possible is important. Once they are ambulatory (i.e., moving), children should be given more opportunity to explore the world outside. Not only do they get a fun chance to work on those motor development skills, they can connect with parents, siblings and other peers and are also less likely to become obese later in life (sparing them a host of health problems in the long-run).
Substantial research concludes children who spent time outdoors do better with interpersonal relationships with peers, have less aggression and more effectively self-regulate. Occupational therapists know children with delays and disabilities especially thrive with outdoor play because they get an opportunity to work on essential development of strength, reflexes, concentration and balance while having fun doing it.
Is there really ever such a thing as a perfect family trip? There’s bound to be a headache somewhere along the road – or in the sky or on the ship. Parents of children with special needs may find the thought of a family vacation especially overwhelming. Pediatric occupational therapists at FOCUS hope you won’t be discouraged. There are strategies you can employ to help things go more smoothly.
Just as they are for typically-developing children, family trips are important for children with special needs to bond with loved ones, make lasting memories, experience new environments and cultures and just generally enjoy themselves. In fact, these journeys can be even more important in some ways for children with special needs because they offer a chance to expand their “safety bubble.”When they have an opportunity to be gently pushed from their comfort zones, we help better prepare them in life – not just to take more trips, but to be more at ease experiencing new things in general.
Our occupational therapists’ biggest mission is helping to prepare children to lead happy, independent, successful lives. That means helping them learn the life skills necessary to function in our society. At the FOCUS clinic, that can involve helping with fine motor skills like hand-writing, life skills like teeth brushing, eating and dressing, adapting to unfamiliar and non-preferred tasks and working on transitioning from one activity to the next. Families who are planning a trip this summer can utilize some of the same strategies occupational therapists do when determining how to make the travel as pleasant as possible for everyone.
Every parent of a toddler at some point has lamented their eating habits – with a common refrain being, “She’s soooo picky!” But how do you know whether this is “just a phase” or if you should seek feeding therapy?
Our FOCUS occupational therapists in Fort Myers can start out by saying, first and foremost, we know how quickly dinner tables can devolve into battlegrounds. Parents may beg, demand, reward, short-order-cook – and it can be physically and emotionally exhausting. The worst part of it is that without strategy, you may pour all this effort in and see no real returns.
So we start by telling parents firstly to stop and look at this – for just a moment – from your child’s perspective. Eating is actually a pretty complicated thing to a fairly new human. You have to use all of your sensory systems. You have to exercise and coordinate so many complex facial and hand muscles. Put something in front of them that’s completely unfamiliar (and maybe a little scary-looking?) and it’s easy to see why a child can get completely overwhelmed.
Here is the good news: It’s not YOUR job to MAKE your child eat. Nope, it’s really not. What we advise to parents of children who take feeding therapy is to think of their role as providing their child with both the opportunity and the skills they need to CHOOSE to eat new foods.