Happy OT Month! Wait…What is OT?


Not only is April Occupational Therapy Month, but 2017 is occupational therapy’s 100th birthday! Today, Kid’s Creek OT Claire Whatley shares a brief history of occupational therapy, how OT is used to treat children, and some information about a little-known aspect (her favorite!) of OT.

A Brief History of Occupational Therapy (OT)

Many people believe that occupational therapy is a young profession, which couldn’t be further from the truth. Occupational therapy has roots in the late 1700’s when a philosopher named Phillipe Pinel began to challenge prevailing beliefs about how to treat those with mental illness. He proposed using an approach that utilized daily, purposeful activities in combination with music, art, and exercise to improve people’s ability to manage emotional stress.

Pinel’s moral treatment theory led to a shift in treatment from locking mentally ill people in asylums to engaging them with activities of daily living. In the mid- to late-1800s, physicians began to see positive outcomes from Mr. Pinel’s approach of using arts and crafts as part of therapy, and the approach began to be used in the treatment of disease and injury.

Society first began to become aware of the benefits of occupational therapy during World War I, when many nurses, artists, teachers, and others cared for injured soldiers, providing arts and crafts for the wounded men to raise their spirits and aid in their recovery, and on March 17, 1917 the National Society for the Promotion of Occupational Therapy (NSPOT) was founded. The NSPOT was later renamed the American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA).

Since those early days, occupational therapy has evolved to include people of all ages and with a variety of conditions. The AOTA now 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.” Occupational therapy can help children with disabilities participate fully in school and social situations, help people regain skills lost due to illness or injury, and provide support for older adults experiencing physical and cognitive changes.

Occupational Therapy and Children

For children, their “occupation” includes playing, learning, and socializing; the main purpose of occupational therapy for children is promoting participation in these activities. Often, activities like dressing and undressing, eating, writing with a pencil, and other physical activities are the focus, and these activities are the ones many people think of when they hear about occupational therapy in children. Less well known, but equally important, aspects of OT are helping children with concentration challenges succeed in school, assisting children with autism to socialize with peers, and working with children who have issues with sensory processing.

The Sensory Aspect of Occupational Therapy

In the early 1960’s, Dr. A. Jean Ayres, an occupational therapist at the University of Southern California, began to describe “hidden disabilities,” which she claimed were caused by a dysfunction in sensory integrative processes. By examining the connection between the brain and behavior, Dr. Ayres was able to observe the relationship between faulty sensory processing and deficits in academic or motor learning tasks. Her observations gave birth to Sensory Integration (SI) Theory, which she described as the process by which the brain organizes sensation to produce an adaptive response.

Dr. Ayres’ work is especially appropriate for our kiddos who demonstrate difficulties with motor planning, handwriting, body awareness, vestibular processing, and visual skills and attention, to name a few, as well as for children who demonstrate aversions to noises or gross motor movements. Under SI theory, an occupational therapist uses play activities to enhance sensory processing, thus reducing meltdowns or frustrations over perceived “simple” tasks. The occupational therapist provides parents with activities for home (otherwise called a home program). Carryover of these activities is essential for a child’s progress with sensory integration.

I love the sensory integration specialty of occupational therapy because although it looks like simple play, it is serious learning for our clients!

Happy 100th Birthday to Occupational Therapy!

Claire Whatley, MS, OTR/L


For more information on the fascinating history of occupational therapy, visit OTCentennial.org.

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