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Mornings are tough for Joe. He has cerebral palsy, a condition that affects the brain's control over the muscles in his body. That means Joe has difficulty with balance. Getting out of bed, brushing his teeth, and getting dressed are hard work. But Joe wants to do things for himself. And he hates it when other people have to help. Fortunately, once a week Joe is visited by Sara, an occupational therapist. Her job is to help Joe stay independent and do things on his own.

What Is Occupational Therapy?
Everyone has an occupation or job. A kid's occupation is to grow, learn, and play. Occupational therapy helps kids who have a physical or mental disability carry out everyday activities like brushing their teeth or putting on shoes and socks. Some occupational therapists help kids create alternate ways to play popular games they might miss out on because of their illness or injury. Many work with kids who need help with their handwriting.

Occupational therapy helps children with disabilities be as independent as possible or aids a kid who's returning to school after a long illness or severe injury. Some people say a physical therapist will get you where you are going, but an occupational therapist helps you out when you get there.

Who Needs It?
All sorts of kids see an occupational therapist. Most have difficulty performing everyday activities like dressing, eating, or attending school. Some kids with conditions like cerebral palsy (like Joe),
muscular dystrophy, or spina bifida may need to use a wheelchair. An occupational therapist can help kids in wheelchairs come up with a plan to go through the lunch line, get stuff out of their school locker, and make it to class on time. They may also help children with autism learn how to interact with others.

An occupational therapist also offers aids and equipment like slings or splints to provide support to different parts of the body. They can help you find devices that make things like opening a jar easier.

Visiting the Occupational Therapist
On your first visit to an occupational therapist, he or she will evaluate how well you can do certain activities compared with other kids your age. Some occupational therapists will come to your home to see how you handle routine tasks like combing your hair or brushing your teeth. Others will meet you at a hospital or clinic.

It's important to remember that occupational therapy is different for every person. No two people are alike and no two treatments are the same either. Once the occupational therapist figures out what you want to learn to do, then he or she will come up with a plan. Often that means breaking an activity into several smaller parts, just like learning a song note by note. For example, if you want to take a bath you might first learn how to turn on the water, then adjust the temperature, find the soap and towel, and finally, get into the tub. Once the plan is made, then all it takes is practice, practice, practice.

How Long Will My Treatment Last?
Because occupational therapy is unique to each person and every kid learns at his own speed, treatment may last a short time or a long time. Some kids find their needs change as they get older or change schools. They return to the occupational therapist to figure out new ways of coping with problems or to master a new skill.

Kids can help speed up treatment by following the instructions of their occupational therapist. It's important to work hard and practice on your own. Some activities or exercises may look weird but they all have a purpose. If you want to know why your occupational therapist has you doing a specific action, ask, "Why are we doing this, and how will it help me?" 

And with time and lots of practice, you will see all that hard work pay off.

Reviewed by: Kim Pierson
Date reviewed: February 2001

Source: KidsHealth is a project of The Nemours Foundation which is dedicated to improving the health and spirit of children. Today, as part of its continuing mission, the Foundation supports the operation of a number of renowned children's health facilities throughout the nation, including the Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children in Wilmington, Delaware, and the Nemours Children's Clinics throughout Florida.  Visit The Nemours Foundation to find out more about them and its health facilities for children