Does your child need occupational therapy?

There’s a lot of uncertainty around occupational therapy, including what it is and who needs it. That’s why we’ve come to help the dust settle and explain everything you need to know about this amazing allied health discipline.

What is an occupational therapist?

Occupational therapists, commonly referred to as OTs, are university-trained allied health professionals. OTs are dedicated to helping clients, who range in ability and age, to improve their ability to do everyday activities, tasks and things.

What do occupational therapists help with?

There are different aspects to everyday living and, through occupational therapy, clients can gain the necessary skills to achieve greater independence and actively participate in them all.


An important aspect of everyday life is being able to look after oneself. From eating to preparing food, and from personal hygiene to getting dressed, OTs use evidence-based therapies to help clients improve their ability to navigate these tasks.

Work and school

Going to school or work is a huge part of everyone’s life. There’s a lot that goes into taking part in the various activities of a work/school environment. An occupational therapist can help you develop the skills necessary for a wide variety of professional or educational contexts.

Leisure activities

It’s not all about work! Taking part in the leisurely activities in life is immensely important and OTs are here to help you squeeze all the joy and enjoyment you can out of life!

Mobility and travel

Occupational therapists are also specialists in helping develop the skills needed to move around physical environments with greater ease. Whether it’s negotiating ramps or transitioning from one position to the next, OTs can help with it all.

Image with text: Did you know that occupational therapy as we know it was founded in 1917 by 3 men and 3 women, but OT techniques were used by ancient Greek physicians as early as 100 BC?

Who needs occupational therapy?

As we mentioned previously, there’s no one type of individual who would benefit from seeing an OT. Occupational therapists work with a range of different people. Some might be young, some might be old, and many will be somewhere in between.

Some clients might require therapy as a result of an injury or a particular illness, while others might have an intellectual and/or physical disability. There are still other clients who may experience psychological problems or emotional problems, or have a developmental delay.

Plus, OT can be delivered both to individuals or in group settings depending on the different needs and goals of the client(s) in question.

How do you know if your child needs occupational therapy?

There could be a number of reasons why your child might be in need of occupational therapy.

  1. To help develop your child’s cognitive development.
  2. To help with emotional regulation or processing.
  3. To help with dealing with particular behaviour issues.
  4. To help with sensory processing development.
  5. To help with social interactions and/or play.
  6. To help develop gross motor skills and/fine motor skills.

Occupational therapists, especially ones who are experienced providing paediatric-aged services, will help to focus on the strengths of your child and achieve their developmental goals in a family-centred, positive and encouraging way. Often, families are intimately involved in the therapy as well.

What to look out for in your child?

Missing developmental milestones

Developmental milestones are different developing skills, such as rolling over, crawling, walking, and talking, that are picked up between a standard range of ages. Children develop at different rates, so there’s no need to panic if your child is going a little slower than other children of the same age. If you’re wondering whether your child is hitting the right milestones at the right time, we recommend speaking to a professional.

Some things to look out for:

  • Significant lags in physical developmental milestones.
  • Delays in learning for their appropriate age level.
  • Lack of or delay in play and social skills expected for their particular age.

Struggling with fine motor skills

Fine motor skills refer to those tasks that require the dexterity, control and strength of the smaller hand, toe, lip or tongue muscles. Developing fine motor skills is important as it will help children succeed later on with essential tasks like writing or working on a computer. Different fine motor skills develop at different ages, so make sure to bear that in mind when monitoring the development of your child.

Some examples of fine motor skills include:

  • Using utensils
  • Using a straw
  • Holding a pencil or pen
  • Drawing
  • Using scissors
  • Manipulating toys
  • Placing brads on a string
  • Playing with puzzle pieces
  • Poor handwriting (including letters and numbers)
  • Colouring
  • Lack of hand dominance
  • Avoidance of games requiring fine motor skills

Struggling with gross motor skills

Gross motor skills are more focused on movement, balance, coordination, endurance and strength. In everyday life and play, this can manifest in your child struggling with running or walking, hopping, climbing stairs, playing catch and a host of other activities.

Some particular things to look out for (bearing in mind what’s age appropriate) include:

  • Being able to coordinate both sides of the body
  • Climbing stairs
  • Lack of ball skills
  • Lack of balance
  • Development of an understanding of right and left
  • Fear of having their feet of the ground
  • Avoiding games involving the use of gross motor skills

Problems with development of sensory processing

Sensory processing includes all different senses: touch, taste, sound, smell and hearing. There are two common ways in which sensory processing problems can manifest.

  1. Over-sensitivity – this means overreacting to normal sensory stimuli.
  2. Under-sensitivity – this refers to continual seeking out of more sensations.
Visual sensory processing

Visual processing includes everything one sees and the brain’s ability to digest, interpret and understand that information. Children experiencing difficulty with visual processing might struggle recognising the shape, size and spacing of letters, struggle with tracking or finding objects, copying from one piece of paper to another, or even struggle with understanding right or left.

Oral sensory processing

Oral processing has to do with the oral area encompassing the mouth and everything in and around it: lips, tongue, palate, and even the jaw. Signs of children struggling with oral sensory processing includes excessive drooling, difficulty drinking from a cup or straw, chewing with the front teeth, exhaustion after eating, losing excessive amounts of food or liquid when eating/drinking or putting toys in their mouth to an excessive degree.

Auditory or olfactory sensory processing

These forms of sensory processing include the senses of sound and smell. Difficulty in this regard can include oversensitivity to increased sounds or smells (or even touch), unusually high pain tolerance, constant movement or being easy to distract, inability to calm down after becoming upset, being overly reactive emotionally, or struggling excessively to cope with change.

Image with a quote in text: Medicine may add days to your life, however occupational therapy adds life to days. - Craig Traylor

Other developmental categories

Social skills

Social skills are the necessary range of soft skills that help children navigate relationships and interact with the people in their lives. If your child struggles interacting socially with either friends or family, struggles with new environments, can’t cope in school or work, or is overly focused on one particular subject to the exclusion of everything else, these might be signs of delayed social skill development.

Learning skills

Difficulty learning can present in a wide range of ways and it’s always best to discuss your concerns directly with your occupational therapist. Some signs of a child struggling with developing learning skills includes:

  • Lack of concentration in school
  • Inability to focus
  • Unable to follow given set of instructions
  • Can’t to resist getting distracted
  • Lack of impulse control
  • Fatigues easily
  • Unusual amount of or lack of energy
  • Struggling to keep up with school work
  • Inability to understand new material
Play skills

Play is very important for the healthy development of children. Through play, a child develops an understanding of their environments and the world. They can develop problem solving skills, build self-confidence and understand how to interact socially. Once again, all children develop and grow at different rates. So, if your child shows any of the following symptoms, it’s worth having a chat with a professional to find out what’s right for them:

  • Does not initiate play on their own
  • Struggles with imitation play
  • Does not engage in an activity for long
  • Does not play with toys appropriately
  • Purposeless wandering instead of playing
  • Engages in overly repetitive play
  • Does not engage with other children
  • Does not develop an understand of taking turns and/or sharing.

What can occupational therapy do?

Occupational therapists are trained and experienced in working slowly, steadily and encouragingly towards a range of goals for your child. Whether it’s developing motor skills (fine or gross), improving play, learning or social skills, mastering certain skills like brushing one’s teeth or getting dressed, or learning to manage their emotions age-appropriately, OTs are here to help. Of course, if special equipment is needed–think hearing aids or wheelchairs–occupational therapists can certainly provide assistance and support as well.

Find out more about occupational therapy

Learn more about what One Central Health’s occupational therapy services have to offer you and your children, or get in touch with us today on (08) 9344 9318 to find out more.

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