I have been working with children with sensory processing challenges for over thirty years. One of the things that I find most frustrating is meeting families who have received poor services from an inappropriate occupational therapist.
These parents have tried to obtain help for their child but ended up wasting their valuable time. Many parents have invested time and money with therapy services that at best have made marginal impact. At worst these services have resulted in damage to a child’s self-esteem. I frequently find parents do not understand what is going on in therapy. They have no idea how to carry over their child’s therapy program at home.
I would like to offer the following recommendations when choosing an occupational therapist to address the sensory needs of your child.
Select a Licensed Occupational Therapist
It may be tempting to try to address your child’s needs through a class, like gymnastics, Tae Kwon Do or swimming. These classes can often serve as a wonderful adjunct to therapy. These classes are often used as part of a sensory diet when transitioning out of therapy.
Sometimes, parents will choose a franchised ‘learning or treatment’ center. These centers offer to improve brain function through a series of exercises and activities. These programs typically use instructors with no background in neurophysiology or sensory processing. These instructors have been taught a rote program to implement.
Neither of these options, community classes or brain function treatment centers, offer the specific, individualized focus needed to successfully address sensory processing disorders.
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Find a Pediatric Occupational Therapist
You want a therapist that has post-graduation practice and training in pediatrics. I often have parents call with a list of approved therapists from their insurance company. As they read me the list, I frequently have to tell them that all of the options provided are geared towards adults. Taking your child with a sensory processing disorder to a rehabilitation clinic focused on adults is a waste of time and money.
Seek a Therapist with Sensory Integration/Sensory Modulation Training & Mentorship
Most therapists receive very little training in Sensory Integration/Sensory Processing Disorder during their undergraduate or graduate course work. Look for a therapist who has been or continues to be in a mentored environment with an experienced therapist.
You want a therapist who stays current, participating in a variety of relevant continuing education courses. SIPT/Sensory Integration certification is a plus. Although, there are wonderful therapists without this certification. Unfortunately, there are some not so good ones that have the certification.
Choose Clinic Based Services
Sensory processing/integration intervention requires the use of a variety of equipment that offers vestibular, proprioceptive and tactile input. This equipment should be able to be adapted in a hundred different ways to meet a child’s needs at a particular moment. It is very difficult to provide effective sensory processing therapy in the home, unless the family has set up a therapy gym.
Explore the Clinic
Set up an appointment to visit the clinic. Ask yourself the following questions.
Does it feel friendly and inviting?
Does it offer multiple points of suspension and have a variety of suspended equipment available?
Are there lots of mats and crash pillows?
Are you able to observe therapy if you are not in the room with your child?
Ensure Parent Education
Is parent education an important part of the therapy program? This often includes a parent interpretive conference about a week after the initial testing. Specific feedback should be provided at the end of each session. Parents should be instructed on the establishment and monitoring of a home program.
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If your child is in school or day care and their issues are having any impact on school, make sure that communication with the classroom teacher is a component of your child’s therapy program.
A school observation can be very valuable in allowing your child’s therapist to understand the classroom environment and expectations. The occupational therapist can then work with the teacher to develop realistic and effective classroom recommendations.
Avoid Cost Related Decisions
While it can be tempting to go with the program that is the least expensive, don’t make that your sole criteria. Doing fewer sessions with a skilled therapist may be a better use of your time and money then less costly sessions with a therapist who is ill equipped to effectively meet your child’s sensory needs.
Choosing the right therapist for your child is a big decision. Take a little extra time to explore available options so that your choice results in effective intervention in a supportive environment.