Occupational Therapy (OT) is “the use of assessment and intervention to develop, recover, or maintain the meaningful activities, or occupations, of individuals, groups, or communities.” The American Occupational Therapy Association defines an occupational therapist as someone who “helps people across the lifespan participate in the things they want and need to do through the therapeutic use of everyday activities (occupations).”
Wilson began going to OT over a year ago to help develop skills and language he was lacking due to deficits with motor planning. Motor planning is “the ability to conceive, plan, and carry out a skilled, non-habitual motor act in the correct sequence from beginning to end.” Difficulties with motor planning are caused by poor neural connections in the brain and problems processing sensory information in the world around us.
Motor planning applies not only to physical motor skills, but also to our ability to form words. Typically, people intake and understand information, plan a response (physical and/or verbal), and carry out their plan. This is true from complex actions down to very simple movements or words. These movements and responses occur through neural pathways to and from the brain to the part of the body that needs action/movement (leg to kick a ball, mouth to produce speech) and become almost automatic over time to make room for learning new things and building new pathways/connections. For Wilson, these kinds of connections in his brain are weak or disorganized, so he spends so much more energy on understanding and planning motor tasks than typical children.
It is interesting that a perfectly functioning ear does not equate with a perfectly functioning auditory system. Our senses are only useful when the connections between the organ and the brain are operating correctly.
This is where OT comes in! We work on a variety of fine and gross motor skills as well as working on Wilson’s transitions from one activity to another, flexibility in play, and social skills. Our Occupational Therapist has helped us create visual schedules (example pictured below) to help Wilson know what is ahead in his day. She has also helped us troubleshoot with managing tantrums, potty training, hair cutting and expanding Wilson’s limited diet.
At Wilson’s sessions, his therapist combines activities that involve movement to develop core strength, balance and coordination with cognitive tasks. For example, one of his FAVORITE things to do there (or anywhere!) is swing. He loves being in motion. In swing photos at the top of this blog, you see the orange therapy swing and Wilson’s very own blue spacial swing at home. The swing provides vestibular input, increasing body awareness. The pressure provides a cocoon-like environment that has a calming effect. After moving or resting in the Lycra swing, children can feel more alert, relaxed and energized.
So he will sit on a swing and, while in motion, the therapist will hold up various objects or flashcards and Wilson will label them. This started very simple last year with things like labeling colors, shapes and animals, and has now has progressed to him forming 1-4 word phrases and sentences, and answering “yes/no” or “where” questions.
Movement helps activate the auditory processing area of the brain. Movements also stimulate neural connections. It is interesting that a perfectly functioning ear does not equate with a perfectly functioning auditory system. Our senses are only useful when the connections between the organ and the brain are operating correctly.
It has been so fascinating to watch Wilson build his vocabulary through these exercises. The words he was learning were ones he had been exposed to numerous times prior; while we read him books, watching cartoons, or hearing us or his peers talking. It wasn’t until he was in motion (a bit of a distraction which takes an element of pressure off combined with endorphins) that he was able to more easily access this vocabulary and attempt to say the words.
It was such an exciting time to start hearing his little voice more often. He still struggled with “finding” many words he knew and would grow very frustrated at times, but he worked SO hard and you could see (and hear!) the progress he was making.
But he still could not say “mama”. We worked hard on it at OT, I know our therapist realized it would mean so much to me. We worked on it in various sensory environments, like while he was swinging, jumping on the trampoline, or tucked into a comfy Lycra tunnel (his other favorite!)
One afternoon in December, I was early to pick up Wilson from preschool. Usually he was anxiously waiting at the gate with some of the other kids but he was busy playing and didn’t see me. So I climbed over to go get him and he turned around and was so surprised to see me, he said “mama!” I really cannot describe how that felt to finally hear him say that word. He was almost three and a half. It’s one thing to BE a mom and even FEEL like a mom, but a whole other world to hear the one who made you a mom, call you “mama”.