Occupational Therapy for Children and Teens with ADHD
October is ADHD Awareness Month and the theme for this year is "Moving Forward with ADHD." For the 17 million children and adults in the United States living with ADHD, support, education and advocacy is key to moving forward to improve their quality of life. For years, medication has been the primary tool to help children and adults with ADHD, but experts have added another layer of support - Occupational Therapy (OT).
ADHD is the most common neurodevelopmental disorder in children characterized by difficulty paying attention, impulsivity, disorganization and hyperactivity. Occupational therapists develop strategies to help people improve their ability to complete daily tasks that may challenge them physically and cognitively.
"We specialize in looking at your child and identifying where their struggles are rooted to come up with ways to help," explains Ashley Wirth, an occupational therapist for 16 years who specializes in pediatric OT with the Sentara Therapy Center - Newtown. "I like to preface the first family meeting by saying we can't fix ADHD, but we can help with a wealth of strategies to help the child be successful."
After learning more about the child's struggles and circumstances, OTs can take action to create a plan that treats the child's environment, behavior, familial and learning environment, in addition to neurological and psychological aspects of their development.
"We can look at whether the issue is behavioral or whether it's actually the result of the brain not being able to meet the demands placed on them," Wirth explains. "We can create specific ways to help them deal with things like overactivity, impulse control and overall regulation."
Ways Occupational Therapy Can Help a Child with ADHD:
1. Improve Self-Regulation
Children with AHDH may struggle to regulate their attention, energy levels and emotions. Occupational therapy can give your child ideas to improve self-regulation, such as breathing exercises, sensory motor activities, and learning to recognize their emotions and how they can better handle them.
"Self-regulation is a primary area of concern for families. An OT is going to tackle this first because if the child's brain is dysregulated it is not in an optimal state for learning. This means the child will struggle to retain any strategies or skills we would teach them. Regulation strategies will help the child's brain to calm and organize itself so that there is higher success for retention," explains Wirth.
2. Improve Executive Function
Children with ADHD often need support with executive functioning skills such as attention, planning, memory and organization. An OT works with your child's specific needs and breaks tasks into manageable steps. They can also help your child with organizational strategies such as creating lists and schedules as well as compartmentalizing parts of their day.
Wirth says, "We help with strategies to decrease anxiety by adding compensation techniques. This might look like a picture schedule or frequent reminders, or it may be decreasing school demands."
3. Improve Relationships and Social Interactions
Many times, children with ADHD need help developing age-appropriate social skills. An OT can help children with social awareness, learning to understand both other children's emotions and social cues and reactions as well as balance their own.
"Some children with ADHD seek out a lot of pressure and movement during the day to help them regulate. This can become problematic with peers. An OT can assist the child and family with channeling the regulation needs into designated activities so that the child can have more positive social relationships," adds Worth.
4. Identify Sensory Processing Strategies
Children with ADHD commonly struggle with sensory processing challenges such as a noisy environment, bright lights or a crowded space. An OT can work with a child, their family and even their teachers to identify sensory strategies that will benefit them. This may look like choosing an alternative to a traditional chair for easier ability to sit still for longer periods of time.
5. Recommend Adaptations
Occupational therapists have experience determining the root causes of specific behaviors and problem-solving solutions. A child who may be considered "lazy" is often in need of adaptations to help them organize their thoughts and their planning to stay organized and better meet deadlines, etc.
Wirth says it's not unusual for an OT to offer strategies that can also help in the classroom, and she will sometimes even offer a summary of strategies that may help the teacher. She explains that some children may not qualify for working with a school-based OT, but that doesn't mean they can't work with an OT not affiliated with their school.
6. Empower Families
Parents with children who have ADHD often struggle with understanding where the child's behavior is coming from. An OT helps translate the behaviors and empower the parents and family members to better prevent, manage and find solutions to these issues. Many parents find it much easier to advocate and help their child with ADHD when they understand the behavior themselves.
Wirth says, "I love having families involved with my sessions because we can observe behaviors and I can talk with the parents right away about why the child is behaving this way. Then we can talk about coping strategies together. The parents can watch it play out right in front of them and that's often very beneficial for parents and their child."
How to Access an OT
Often a pediatrician, psychologist or psychiatrist will recommend that a child or teen participate in OT. Wirth notes that the occupational therapist can help with the referral process and that not all children or teens have an official diagnosis when they start OT.
"Sometimes we get a child before the diagnosis because there's a behavioral or regulation issue," she explains. She recommends parents get an immediate referral to OT if they suspect their child may have ADHD or may benefit from the therapy.
By: Amy Sandoval