5 Skills Your Neurodiverse Kid Can Learn in Occupational Therapy

Unlock your child’s potential through skill-building play.

Occupational therapy (OT) can be a valuable tool for helping children develop essential skills and overcome challenges. In adolescence, the most important occupations include play, self-care, sleep, socialization and education. “Occupational therapists can help identify a child’s individual neurological and sensory-processing differences,” explains Anna DeHondt, OTR/L for KTL Therapy. With this key information, OTs can help create an environment where the child’s sensory needs are met — a place where they can learn and grow.

Developing Fine Motor Skills

Daily activities like handwriting, cutting paper, tying shoes and using utensils can be a challenge for neurodiverse kids. Fine motor development is complex and involves visual attention and perception, muscle strength, and hand-eye coordination, says Karen Stevens, OTR/L, a school district therapist and therapist at Elite Kids. When kids develop a stable core or trunk and develop larger muscles, like those needed to throw a ball, their motor skills will greatly improve. OTs use a variety of methods to improve fine motor skills, including play-based therapy such as sorting small toy figures with tongs, locating hidden beads in putty in order to string them into a necklace, tracing designs with color change markers, playing board games, and interacting with technology. All of these interventions can improve a child’s school readiness.

Cultivating Self-Regulation Skills

Self-regulation is a child’s ability to manage sensory input, emotions, behaviors and reactions to their environment. OT addresses self-regulation by decoding a child’s unique sensory profile. 

“Some children may be hyper-responsive, or more sensitive to sensory stimuli — they may be avoidant of certain environments or sensory input,” DeHondt says. “Other children can be hypo-responsive, meaning that their sensory system does not easily register sensory input, and therefore they will seek input from their environment to feel regulated.” 

When working with families, DeHondt promotes the goal of regulation before expectation. “In other words, once a child is regulated, then they are better able to demonstrate all of their amazing strengths and abilities for play, socialization, self-care and education — just to name a few!” Educating families on the child’s unique sensory profile helps them support their child’s self-regulation by helping them add the proper supports at home.

Overcoming Challenges in Social Settings

Neurodiverse children may find social interactions extremely difficult, Stevens explains, because they are frequently weak at reading social cues. “Obviously, this can create challenges educationally, socially and vocationally,” she says. They may interpret statements literally when it is just an expression. They may become fixated on one detail in a set of verbal instructions or may require extra time to consider their answer to questions.

An OT may plan therapy sessions with a child and one of their peers in order to for these challenges as they naturally appear. This may take place while playing a board game, doing a craft, or having a child teach their peer a task. “As issues arise, the challenge can be addressed and feedback provided through carefully directed conversation.” An OT can also work with families to prepare for social challenges by creating schedules with plenty of breaks and safe spaces, as well as educating the family on triggers and indicators that the child needs a break.

Improving Play Skills

OT sessions are designed to be engaging and enjoyable for children, putting playtime front and center. Sessions often include swinging, jumping, crashing into a crash pad and tactile play. 

“Pediatric occupational therapy is play-based, which means that all interventions are intended to be playful and therefore intrinsically motivating for the child,” DeHondt says. “In treatment sessions, we will use games, imaginative play, obstacle courses, and art as ways to work on the child’s fine motor skill development.” After engaging their play skills in therapy, kids are given exercises to help them when engaging with others in playtime at home. 

Work on Executive Function Skills

OTs can help neurodiverse kids plan ahead, meet goals, show self-control, follow step-by-step directions and stay focused. These are all executive function skills that will help serve the child their entire life. Learning to plan, organize and modify tasks with the help of a therapist can help children to be successful in a school setting. “Therapy goals and activities are individualized to help a child acquire partially developed or missing skills in order to experience greater success in their environment,” Stevens explains. 

Offering neurodiverse children a pathway to growth, OT can help children enhance their fine motor skills, learn to self-regulate, participate socially, play well, and improve their executive function as they engage in play-based learning. With these new skills, they’ll be more empowered in their daily lives to form meaningful connections and reach their full potential. Through partnering with an OT, parents and caregivers can support their neurodiverse children in their journey towards a brighter future!

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