For children with special needs, both occupational therapists (OT) and physical therapists (PT) can play an important role in helping children develop motor and life skills. Although a coordinated program with both professionals may benefit a child most, we will explore how an OT can help a child gain new skills, or regain old skills, that are needed to perform activities of daily life.
An Occupational Therapist is often the first professional to work with a child that is delayed in a typical milestone, or who behaves in an unusual or unruly way. An OT will assess the child and his or her environment and make modifications to help the child complete specific tasks. The goal is to help improve the child’s participation and performance in daily activities, and to promote overall independence.
An OT can help address a wide range of difficulties experienced by a child with disabilities, including:
- Attention span and arousal level
- Sensory and processing skills
- Fine and gross motor skills
- Activities of Daily Living (ADLs), also known as self-help skills, such as brushing teeth
- Visual-perceptual skills
For children with learning disabilities, an OT can identify and help with the underlying motor problem that is contributing to, or causing, their academic difficulties. They can also work with children who have trouble getting organized or completing everyday tasks.
Here are 9 useful tips for children with learning disabilities, especially for individuals with fine motor difficulties.
- Review rules and routines. Ask the teacher to review classroom rules with the child individually so that he or she understands recess, lunch, or other routines.
- Use computers. Typing may be difficult at first, but it is important for your child to become comfortable with the computer. Typing is one way to reduce the amount of handwriting required.
- Accommodate their needs. For children who have difficulty with handwriting, try paper with widely spaced lines, which allows for bigger letters, or raised lines.
- Ask for extra time. Parents should discuss whether extra time is permitted for completing projects. If there is no leniency, be willing to accept a project that is less neat.
- Discuss alternate formats. There is more than one way of presenting information. Ask the teacher if reports may be presented orally, with illustrations, or typed up.
- Create routines. At home, establish a regular routine in the morning and for doing homework. Illustrations of the routines can be helpful, too.
- Wear clothing that is easy to get on/off. Velcro closures are a simpler option over buttons, snaps, or shoelaces.
- Prepare for new things. Introduce your child to new activities or playgrounds on an individual basis. Talk about rules and routines so that they are prepared. This allows the child to focus on the motor aspects separately from the other aspects of the activity.
- Encourage socialization. Your child may prefer sports like swimming over team sports. If this is the case, advocate for drama or school clubs to encourage social interaction.
Occupational Therapists are advocates for the children they work with. They educate parents, teachers and others to help the child feel more comfortable in their local community. There are occupational therapy programs for adults, but the needs of adults and children differ greatly. An OT with training and experience in pediatrics will benefit a special needs child much more.
If you suspect that your child has difficulties with motor skills, coordination, or life skills, it is important to have him or her assessed by an Occupational Therapist. After the assessment, the OT will be able to recommend a plan of action to help promote your child’s independence.
Arky, Beth, “Occupational Therapists: What Do They Do?” Child Mind Institute, 2017.
Csillag, Jules, “How Occupational Therapists Help Students with Disabilities,” Noodle, April 20, 2015
Missiuna, Cheryl, “Strategies for Children with Learning Disabilities,” Canadian Association of Occupational Therapists, 2017,
“Occupational Therapy for Special Needs Children,” Bright Hub Education, 2017.
“State of Occupational Therapy Statutes and Regulations,” American Occupational Therapy Association, 2014.
“Role of Physical Therapy and Occupational Therapy in Working with Special Needs Children,” CBD College, February 6, 2015.