Occupational therapy explained

Senior OT Samira Hanif, of Provita, demystifies the profession


What does being an Occupational Therapist (OT) mean?
Occupational therapists are trained to help children of all ages to overcome physical, perceptual or social difficulties. Children need to develop certain skills to become functional and independent adults. These include sensory discrimination and processing, development of motor, communication, language, cognitive, self concept and self care skills. The educational background of occupational therapists includes anatomy, neurology, psychology and sociology and activity analysis.

So you don’t just deal with clinical/medical/special needs problems?
A child doesn’t need to have a specific diagnosis to be seen by an occupational therapist. Children are often referred by family members, teachers, doctors or psychologists when there are issues relating to a child’s movement, motor function, sensory abilities, social functioning, level of concentration and behaviour. There may be occasions where a child is referred to an OT, because parents may find a child ‘difficult to manage’ or feel ‘something isn’t right’. Or, a teacher may recommend it due to the child experiencing coordination problems, or difficulties completing tasks in the classroom, such as handwriting or reading. Under these circumstances an OT needs to identify the appropriateness of the referral.

Mainstream schools often recommend parents consult OTs if their children have learning issues. Why is this?
Occupational therapists undergo extensive training in the body’s neurological system and this includes gaining in-depth knowledge of an individual’s cognition. Cognition refers to the processing of information, applying knowledge and retaining information. These processes include attention, remembering, producing and understanding language, solving problems, and making decisions. Children who have attention difficulties can immediately compromise their ability to learn, as they are not focused on the information presented.

There are many possible reasons for children to have difficulty paying attention during class. They may have a specific attention disorder such as attention deficit, hyperactivity disorder, sensory modulation difficulties or visual perceptual difficulties). Some children may not understand the information presented because of learning or intellectual difficulties, as the information may not have meaning for them. They may also have a language difficulty and won’t understand complex verbal information or they may have a memory difficulty and cannot retain information adequately. Occupational therapists can help with these issues.

How can you verify the reputation of a particular OT Service? There are quite a few options out there.
Therapists must have a licence issued by Dubai Health Authority and clients can ask also specific questions to identify their suitability. OTs should also have a minimum of two years post-grad experience to practice in the UAE. It is important to ensure an OT has experience in paediatric care too, as the role of an OT varies considerably within each area of specialty.

Parents should also expect OTs to provide comprehensive feedback following the initial assessment phase. Ongoing assessments will be completed throughout the intervention stage also, and OTs will set very specific, realistic and measureable short, medium and long term goals based on the child’s abilities.

What kinds of questions will be asked during an initial OT assessment on a child?
An initial assessment for a child will involve gathering information about the child’s abilities, habits, routines, education and family history – to build a clear picture of all factors that may contribute to the child’s current difficulties. This process usually involves asking relevant family members to complete questionnaires, liaison with relevant professionals involved (such as school teachers, doctors or psychologists). Then the OT will assess the following areas: functional difficulties such as dressing or eating; school skills (such as scissor work, pencil control and reading); vision, touch and balance; gross and fine motor skills; coordination and sequencing; social skills; and behavioural responses. Therapy goals will be set in accordance to each child’s level of ability, so it can be difficult to predict exactly what to expect from each child at the very start of involvement in occupational therapy.

There seem to be long waiting lists for the OT services in Dubai. Are there alternative services parents could try the meantime?
Occupational therapists work as part of a team alongside physiotherapists and educational psychologists. However one cannot act as substitute for another. Physiotherapists focus specifically on physical difficulties, such as motor function, while educational psychologists focus on behaviour, emotions, and learning. Meanwhile, OTs focus on sensory perception and physical and social components. If you find yourself on an OT waiting list, you can get started with other disciplines, but involvement in OT is also vital to a child’s progress.

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