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.
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.
Smartphones in the hands of little ones is generally frowned upon, and usually for good reason. Researchers have linked excess screen time to speech delays, stunted socialization and repetitive motion “tech ache.” BUT – it’s not all bad.
In speech therapy, occupational therapy, behavioral therapy and sometimes even physical therapy, we’ve found at FOCUS Fort Myers that smartphones can have some pretty amazing applications – and we’re discovering new uses all the time! (We LOVE when parents share their own ideas too!)
There is no getting around the fact these small, glowing boxes are an integral part of our daily lives, with approximately 92 million smartphones in the U.S. – a figure that’s still growing. Limits on screen time are important – necessary even (and, let’s be honest, not just for kids). But our FOCUS occupational, behavioral and speech therapists are embracing the many ways this technology has become a key tool in achieving occupational, behavior and speech therapy goals.
Sensory processing disorder is when the brain has difficulty receiving and responding to information obtained via the senses. Although it’s not formally recognized as a distinct medical diagnosis, our occupational therapists in Fort Myers know it’s very real and something with which many children struggle, impacting the ability to successfully engage in everything from toothbrushing routines to consuming a healthy diet to paying attention to a math lesson or playing a game with peers.
While it’s most usually co-occuring with conditions like autism or ADHD, sensory processing disorder can present in children without any disability at all (research suggests 10 to 55 percent of children without a diagnosed disability have difficulty in this area).
It can manifest in the form of being overly-sensitive to certain environmental factors. For example, someone with sensory processing disorder may be so keenly aware of sounds or light touches, it may to them seem physically painful. A child with sensory processing disorder might also seem uncoordinated, have difficulty engaging in play or conversation or have difficulty telling where there limbs are in space. Certain textures, tastes, smells, sounds, brightness and movement can become overwhelming, and sometimes make an otherwise ordinary task seem unbearable.
A recent analysis published in the American Journal of Occupational Therapy examined the state of research on sensory integration for children, finding that in recent years, this area of academic study has shifted from sensory processing and integration problems to emphasizing the occupational performance challenges that result from these problems. More recent research looks at overcoming challenges in detecting, interpreting and adaptively responding to sensory stimuli affecting a child’s ability to participate occupations that are both meaningful and valuable. “Participation” here could mean anything from entering a highly complex professional field of study to engaging in key “occupations” of daily living, such as getting enough rest and sleep, playing, adapting to a school environment and participating in basic social interactions.
Power to the puppets!
For children with a range of difficulties and disabilities, our speech and occupational therapists in Fort Myers have seen striking benefits in working with puppets during our sessions with kids. Puppets, first and foremost, are fun (who doesn’t love Sesame Street?). But they can also help us engage children in ways they might otherwise struggle, namely in peer-to-peer and child-to-adult interactions. They can also help kids better understand certain functional roles and responsibilities in everyday life.
Puppets can be an entertaining yet powerful visual to help us illustrate action-word vocabulary or spatial concepts. As speech and occupational therapists, we can use puppets to help teach the rules of conversation, general social interaction and causal connections. A puppet might “forget” they shouldn’t interrupt or talk so loudly or push to the front of the line. Puppets can be frustrated, sad or angry about something, and it allows the child to explore those complicated feelings and situations without being overwhelmed – because puppets are inherently silly too. They also tend to be more effective than a two-dimensional picture because they rely on visual, audible and tactile senses.
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!).
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.
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.