Thursday, December 17, 2009

Three Little Words

As the end of the school year draws to a close, I find that my school age clients get a little bit impatient, frustrated and less cooperative. I think it's a combination of fatigue, burn out, and anticipation of the holidays and Christmas.

One particular client, a boy with Cerebral Palsy, flatly refused to cooperate one day. Knowing that he was likely to be a little difficult, I had prepared activities that I thought would be fun. I only had a few things with me as I was seeing this boy in his home. When he showed no interest in any of the tasks I had on offer, I knew I had to try harder, as there was no alternative. In my therapy room I have a huge range of resources, but on home and school visits I am limited.

"I don't want you in my house", said the boy. "I'm the boss here" he added.
I told him that he wasn't and that we were there to work, that his father would be disappointed if we did nothing, and that it was to help him to use his arm better. "You need to practice using both your left and right hands to play the Wii!" His favourite thing to do.
"I don't want to", he said when I offered him different games. He had not even looked at them.
Complete resistence.
I needed him to understand that I wasn't going anywhere.
"I like you", I said. "I want to be here, and I would really like you to play this game with me".

Well those first three little words made the biggest different. The boy looked at the game I had in front of us, looked up in to my eyes and said "OK". For the rest of the session he was involved, he participated, and he worked hard. I was so proud of him and so thrilled that our therapy session was productive.

I think there are so many messages here in this story. It's important to show consideration and care for other people. It's nice to be told nice things, and it's nice to be nice. I meant what I said, and I think that's important to.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

We Did It! Hooray!!

Working with young children and having several of my own, daily achievements are often celebrated Dora The Explorer style by singing "We did it! We did it! We did it! Hooray!" This is one of the first things that came to mind when I discovered that a client of mine, a 12-year-old boy with ASD, had learned to shower and toilet with minimal intervention.

My last blog post focussed on a particular therapy session, spent role-playing the steps involved in wiping after using the toilet. I had mentioned this particular client to help explain the many ways in which OT's work with people to improve their ability to participate in daily living activities.

This last session was one of many that had been spent developing and introducing schedules for daily self-care tasks. Weeks before had been spent discussing the steps involved in tasks such as showering and toileting, role-playing each step, and perfecting posters for actual use, in addition to coaching the child's mum on how best to introduce these concepts at home.

Mum had been particularly worried about this last point. After years of developing a routine that worked, this was a big step for both of them. It was bound to cause some stress as any change in routine often does, and it was going to be a time consuming process.

I never expected to be so excited and proud when I discovered that my client had learnt to both shower and wipe himself when toileting with only minimal supervision required for each activity. Only months beforehand, he had been completely dependent and showed little interest in changing that fact. We now have new goals for therapy based on other daily tasks and I can't wait to see what else this amazing kid can do. Hooray!

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Back to Basics

I have previously blogged about my therapy sessions focussing on skills such as handwriting and age-appropriate play. Occupational Therapists work with their clients on a very broad range of daily living skills, including self-care.

One of my clients is a 12-year-old boy who has Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD). His mum has up until this point assisted with all self-care tasks, including toileting.

As a school camp was coming up, we decided to dedicate one therapy session to helping this child learn the steps involved in toileting independently - in particular wiping. First we discussed why it was time to learn this skill and reassured him that Mum would be close by to assist when needed. Kids with ASD find change to routine challenging and it's important to introduce change slowly, and with as much information as possible. Children with ASD respond well to visual cues and step-by-step instructions, so this was the method employed for this boy.

After discussing the steps involved, we role-played going to the toilet. If you ever had any illusions that OT was a glamorous career choice, they will be shattered forthwith!

I grabbed a role of toilet paper and we sat on our chairs. I explained that we are pretending to have just been to the toilet. I showed my client how we wrap the toilet paper around our hand and then wipe ourselves clean. We discussed how we knew when we were clean and what to do with the paper once finished. Mum and I explained why it was important to be clean for hygiene reasons and because we don't want to smell!

The 12-year-old was able to copy my actions and respond to my verbal instructions. After a few goes, he was better at pulling the paper off the role and wrapping it around his hand. We felt that he was ready to try this by himself at home in the lead up to school camp.

Following this session, I was really satisfied by what we had achieved and excited by the prospect of this child learning such an important life skill.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

A Short Break

I have a very adventurous two-year-old daughter. This week she fell off some equipment at the playground and fractured her right elbow (Type 1 Supracondylar fracture). She now has her arm in a bright red, arm length plaster cast. She does not appear to be in any significant amount of pain and has tolerated the cast well. I on the other hand, am beside myself.

The doctor at the fracture clinic assured me that in three weeks time, the injury will have healed and she should have no long term complications. The only restrictions given were not to get the cast wet or play in the sand.

The past few days have been challenging - mainly because my daughter still insists on jumping on the lounge and hurtling down the hallway either on her bike or on her chubby, two little legs. I am more concerned about her 'good' arm, than the injured one because it's going to take the full weight of any extra falls.

Bath time has been the greatest challenge, as my patient loves swimming in the bath, and has had difficulty keeping very still while I bathed her. The compromise we have reached is that she will keep still if I allow her to use her non-plastic-bagged arm to splash water at me.

The lesson I have learned from this experience is this:
Don't take your child's health for granted.

A fairly obvious lesson I know, and one that I should have already been taught - given I work with children who usually have long term and complicated health conditions. But it's easy to walk out of the practice doors at the end of the day, and travel home to my family where all that has happened earlier is forgotten. So I have been reminded of this important lesson, and will endeavour to remember it - long after my daughter has returned to throwing herself off equipment at the playground.

Friday, August 7, 2009

A Gripping Story

A common request from parents, regardless of the initial referral reason, is for me to assess their child's pencil grasp. From a very early age, most children show an interest in scribbling with crayons, biros they've found lying around, and lipstick tubes! As a child's pencil control improves, they are able to start drawing recognisable shapes and at around school age, are able to form letters and numbers.

Developing a good pencil grasp is essential to mastering writing skills and is crucial to legible letter and number formation. As each school year goes by, children are asked to write sentences and then paragraphs, and the amount of time spent on writing tasks increases. If the child has developed a poor pencil grasp, writing can be an uncomfortable and a dreaded experience for the child.

If a child holds their pencil too tightly, the muscles in their fingers and hands will tire quickly and become sore when writing over a period of time.
If a child uses poor finger positioning on the pencil, the same problem can result.

Does your child shake their hand after writing for a while? Do their knuckles and fingertips look red and taught? Is their writing illegible or does it get bigger and less controlled with writing?

These are the things to look for when watching your child use a pencil. Here's a link with more information - If you would like further help to improve your child's pencil grasp, contact your local OT or talk to your school teacher.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Pay Attention!

A young boy, 4 years of age, was brought to me for assessment. He had not been diagnosed with any particular disorder, but was easily distracted and found it difficult to pay attention to the task at hand. He had been seeing a Speech Therapist for some time due to a slight delay in his speech development and he dribbled.

The boy's mum was mostly concerned that he would not be able to concentrate in class when he started prep next year. She wondered what she could do to help him at home, in readiness for school.

I gave the child some activities to complete and observed that he fidgeted in his chair, and was easily distracted, and yes - had difficulty paying attention. One of the first things I noticed was that when needing to apply force or pressure, e.g to mould playdough, he would move to position himself over the table to use all his strength, rather than relying on his hand strength alone. When I asked him to throw a ring or ball, he needed to use two hands to get any sort of distance. Throughout the assessment I asked the boy to complete desk-based tasks that assessed things like posture, attention, and fine-motor skills, and more active tasks that assessed his balance, coordination and proprioception.

During the assessment, the 4-year-old managed to respond to multi-step directions, and complete age appropriate puzzles and games. I found that when he began to lose focus and become distracted, his posture also changed and he would recruit compensatory muscle groups to move or exert force on an object. I asked this child if he ever got tired in the neck, back, arms or legs when sitting for a long time. He thought for a second then answered "Yes. Sometimes my elbows hurt." His mum hadn't heard this before and wasn't sure what he meant by this.

By the end of the assessment, it had become apparent that the attention difficulties experienced by this boy were more likely due to low tone, than because of any cognitive or intellectual dysfunction.

Low tone or hypotonia is explained well in Wikipedia:

"Hypotonia is a disorder that causes low muscle tone (the amount of tension or resistance to movement in a muscle), often involving reduced muscle strength. Hypotonia is not a specific medical disorder, but a potential manifestation of many different diseases and disorders that affect motor nerve control by the brain or muscle strength".

I recommended that the child engage in physical activities that promote muscle strength, balance and coordination, like climbing, running, and bike riding. He was already taking swimming lessons and going to structured gym classes, so he was already on his way.

With regards to desk-based work, I suggested that the boy be given a seat and chair that was appropriate for his size and that enabled him to sit with his feet flat on the floor and his back well supported. When performing desk-based tasks, it was probable that the child would become easily fatigued and possibly develop joint or muscle pain. He needed to be given the opportunity to stretch and change postures frequently.

With these strategies in place, and ongoing review of his progress and awareness of his needs, the 4-year-old boy should have no difficulty keeping up with his peers on commencing prep.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Showered With Love

The patience and devotion shown by parents who have kids with special needs, is a constant source of inspiration for me. The more time I spend with these people, the more I wonder where they find the strength to get through each day. Mums and Dads who have kids with conditions such as ASD, Asperger's and Cerebral Palsy love their children as all parents love their children. They want the best for their kids as all parents do. They worry and fret as parent worry and fret, and their days are also filled with the usual highs and lows. And on top of all this, they have to cope with the extra things that happen as a result of these conditions being a part of their lives. And these conditions do affect the whole family in ways that I am only beginning to understand.

I was asked to consult with a mum about her 12-year-old son. He had Autism and was still very dependent upon her to complete self-care tasks. Due to his age, and the fact that her son would soon be entering adolescence, she was keen for him to start showering independently. For most, this seems like a fairly easy task and can be done without too much thought. For someone with Autism, the number of individual steps involved in the process can be confusing and anxiety-provoking - rendering the whole task impossible.

Think about it. When you take a shower, what do you do? You get in the shower, you wash yourself, you get out right? Not quite. Break it down further. When you get in the shower, you need to take off your clothes. First your shoes and socks, then your pants, and underwear and so on. Then you step into the shower.

When you step into the shower, you may need to adjust the screen door or curtain. You need to turn on the cold tap, then the hot, and adjust the temperature. This can be DANGEROUS. Make sure the temperature is right. You need to make sure the shower head is angled correctly. Then you find the soap and wash your body.

More steps! You need to wash your face, your neck, behind your ears. Then you wash your chest, your arms, your armpits .... And now you are beginning to understand.

The next step is to replace the soap, turn off the water, get out of the shower. Break it down further - and you can - and you will begin to see the complexity of this one basic self-care task. If you have difficulty processing and sequencing these steps, you will struggle to do this task without assistance.

People who have an Intellectual Disability or difficulties with Cognitive Processing often require visual and verbal cues to complete basic tasks. When you start to think about all the tasks you complete in a day, a picture begins to emerge of what a family experiences when they have a child with these issues.

The 12-year-old boy and his mother have many challenges to overcome, but I have faith that he will learn in time to independently complete some self-care tasks. We will use verbal cues, visual cues and lots of patience and devotion from his mum.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Everyone's Best Friend

My daughter's swimming instructor recently took temporary ownership of a Guide Dog puppy in training. The little pup came along to the pool and I was fortunate enough to get a cuddle. I absolutely love animals, in particular dogs, and I have a special interest in Therapy Dogs.

Guide Dogs are well known to the general community, and most people are aware that these dogs are great companions for people who have a visual impairment. The many other benefits of dog ownership and the use of dogs in therapeutic situations, are not as well known.

Most dog owners will tell you that their pets are great company, good for keeping away unwanted guests, great at eating food thrown on the floor, and provide motivation for getting some exercise. These benefits are fairly obvious. What you may not realise, is that there are also health benefits to dog ownership. There has been some excellent research conducted by psychologists and other health professionals, that has found that pets can improve your mood and help depression and lonliness, reduce stress and lower blood pressure, and promote a healthier lifestyle.

Because of these benefits, dogs have been introduced into therapeutic situations. They can be used to provide motivation for children with movement difficulties, or act as a calming influence for people who may have an anxiety disorder. Read this abstract from an article to find out how a dog helped a child with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

In addition to being used in therapy settings, dogs have also been trained as Assistance Dogs. These animals are able to help people who have a disability that prevents them from independently completing some tasks such as opening doors and retrieving items.

If you are interested in reading more, or in helping to support one of these fantastic causes, please click on these links:

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Vroom Vroom

After spending quite a few years working with adults helping them return to work post-injury, I decided to allocate one day a week to working with kids with developmental difficulties. The change in focus came from my growing interest in child development, a need to 'make a difference', and the sudden opportunity to move into private practice.

Working with adults is challenging. Their issues are numerous and complicated. Their needs are great and urgent. See my Blog on 'My First'.

Working with adults within the Worker's Compensation system is even more challenging. Not only do you need to address barriers to return to work affecting the client, there are many stakeholders involved whose needs you also have to consider - the employer, the insurer, the doctor and other health professionals.

Because of the stakes, everything you have done, and plan to do, must be documented. This is a requirement of the insurer and of the provider you are working for. Every conversation, email, fax must be recorded and filed diligently. Reports must be written frequently. Paperwork is 90% of your job.

So when I first met with the owner of the new paeds practice where I would be working, I was amazed at how little was actually written.
How much do we charge for reports?
"We don't often need to write reports".
How long do you give yourself for writing progress notes in between therapy sessions? I asked.
"We just write them" *puzzled look*
I quickly realised that the focus for practice was not to document every little action. The action itself was important. Paediatric therapy was all about the client and not the process!

My first client was a darling little child, not quite 3 years of age, who had Autism. I chatted with his Mum as we played. We spoke about his current difficulties with communication and sensory issues. We chatted about his inability to play with toys appropriately, and we set goals around these problems. This little man loved his cars and would sit for ages just spinning their wheels. No vroom! vroom! or other behaviours typical of this age group. Our main goal for future therapy sessions? To help this little boy play well with his cars.

After the appointment ended, I sat to reflect. I had taken notes during the session, and made a point of writing out our goals and plans for the next session. There was no report to write because there had been no insurer, doctor or teacher involved in the referral. There were no forms to fill out, or boxes to be ticked. The therapy session had been all about that child and not on the paperwork. I stil enjoy my vocational rehab work, but working with these children has reminded me why I became an OT in the first place.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

A *#(*T#! Dream Come True

Before I studied OT, I did an undergraduate degree in Psychology. My favourite subject by far, was one called Abnormal Psychology. Within this subject, I learned all about the more 'interesting' psychological disorders, such as Munchausen's By Proxy and Tourette's Syndrome.

Tourette's particularly fascinated me. Not only because it would be hilarious to see, but because I was really interested in the neurological processing going on to cause the compulsive verbalisations and tics. It is a little understood condition and one that still baffles the medical world.

I was employed for a time, to assess people who had a range of physical and psychological conditions, and report on the type of work they may be able to perform.

A work colleague of mine had excitedly announced one day that she had just assessed a man who had Narcolepsy. I was insanely jealous. He had apparently fallen asleep at the table in front of her. Opportunities like that don't happen too often. It was with great joy then, that I discovered that soon after, I was to assess a man who had Tourette's Syndrome.

When I read the referral information, I was both excited and terrified. I was so worried that I would not be able to maintain composure and that I would either ask inappropriate questions, or not be able to speak at all. I did as much reading as I could to understand the condition and when the day arrived, felt as prepared as much as I could be.

On the morning of the appointment, I was summoned to reception and advised that the client was outside the waiting room. His wife had come to reception and declared that he could not come through the front door. I walked outside and found a tall, middle-aged man with his similarly aged wife, standing there, both looking rather anxious.

I was told by the wife, that her husband was nervous and could not speak at all. I offered to conduct the interview standing right there. I had determined his work capacity immediately (he had none), and decided to direct my questions at the wife, to determine if they needed any additional support.

The woman told me this story.
Her husband was a fully functioning, normal man. He had a well paying job in an administrative position and enjoyed life. One day, he woke up and could not speak. Suspecting a stroke, the woman rang an ambulance. Over the next few days, he underwent scans and neurological assessment, but no abnormalities were found. Over weeks, the man was assessed and after showing no signs of improvement, he was sent home. Over time, he began to experience tics - jerky involuntary movements, and demonstrated extreme anxiety when faced with leaving the home. When he did speak, he stuttered, and his words were often accompanied by expletives. He could not work. He could barely function. Getting to the appointment was a massive achievement for the couple, which had taken days of preparation.

During this conversation, I forgot to be awestruck or amazed that I was actually standing next to a person with Tourette's. I forgot to be awkward and giggly. Because I wasn't.

I felt sad for this man and this woman, who had been suddenly and without any known reason, plunged into hell by this awful condition. As I spoke to them, I asked about their support network, resources and other treatment options that could be explored. I wanted to help. In my report, I suggested that the couple be given as much support as possible to access counselling, therapy and specialists that may down the track, be able to help.

It was a dream come true, to meet a man with Tourette's, but I didn't need to suppress giggles or hide my amusement. Because it wasn't funny. I thank that couple for sharing their story with me and for teaching me more than I could have ever imagined.

For more information visit:

I'll Always Remember My First

I remember his name, where he worked, and where he lived. I will never forget, because he was my first. My first client.

As a newly graduated OT, I took on a job that I now believe was completely inappropriate for my level of experience. I learned so much, though, in those first few years, working from a sallelite office for a company who were less interested in helping me to be a good OT, and more so in ensuring my billable hours exceeded my number of waking hours.

My first. He was referred for help returning to work, after severing several tendons in his dominant hand. He was a carpenter, and this was a devastating injury. My job was to coordinate his return to work by liaising with his doctor, employer and insurer. I was to monitor his progress while he was treated and undergoing physical therapy, then at a time deemed appropriate by all involved, put together a graded return to work plan. I needed to identify suitable duties - duties that could be undertaken at his level of capacity (not much), and if no duties were available (there wasn't), find him a host employer who could give him some work to do while he was recovering.

I loved working with this carpenter. He had a fascinating injury and I loved following his treatment and progress with therapy. He was hopeless at turning up to therapy and gym appointments, and had absolutely no interest in returning to work as a carpenter. He wanted to use this 'opportunity' to move into a supervisory role. Through the time I worked with him, I discovered that he had received his injury falling through a glass door while drunk, a fact which would have affected his insurance entitlements, and he was going through a messy relationship breakup.

Here's why I loved working with this guy. It's because I learned more about being an OT with this one case, than I did in 6 years of attending university. Being an OT is about the bigger picture, and about knowing all of the pieces in order to get an outcome. It's about using your knowledge of injuries, treatment protocols, and case management, to work towards an outcome that will hopefully benefit the client. But that this knowledge alone is not enough, and sometimes, success is out of your reach because of all of the other things going on in that person's life.

I didn't help him get back to work, because he was a long term case and I left town. I often think of the carpenter, and hope he got better. I often wonder if I would have more success with him now that I have so much more experience? If only I knew then, that his case would be one of the easier ones!

Monday, July 13, 2009

What's That?

I am an Occupational Therapist.

I love my job, but some days wish I had chosen one of the better known professions within the field of allied health. Everyone knows basically what a Physiotherapist does, and has at least heard of a Speech Therapist, but OT? No idea. I find myself having to explain in many different ways, depending on the audience, what it is exactly that I do.

I have discovered that the best way to answer the question is by providing anecdotal information or case studies based on the hundreds of clients I have seen over the years. I have worked with people of all ages, in many different settings with a fantastic range of physical and psychological injuries, illnesses and conditions.

I love my job, and find it incredibly fascinating. I hope through my blog posts, you will come to understand more about the field of Occupational Therapy, and also enjoy reading about some of the more interesting people I have come across over the years.

As a last word for now, I should mention that I take my job seriously and have the utmost respect for those people who have allowed me to work so closely with them, particularly when they have been at their most vulnerable. I do have a sense of humour however, and sometimes life is funny. If I happen to offend anyone, please let me know ASAP.

I will be omitting any identifying information to ensure confidentiality is maintained.