So it was Halloween this weekend and I went trick or treating for the first time since I was in middle school! I wasn’t actually physically going up to the doors and getting candy, but I was out in costume with a bunch of elementary schoolers and family friends, so I’m counting it. I was also forced to go into a haunted house by a group of 9 and 10 year old girls, which was a poor choice on their part, as I’ve been known to cry while waiting in line for haunted houses before…soooo yeah. That went about as poorly as I expected it would, with me screaming louder than the children and generally making a fool of myself as I do whenever I get dragged into a haunted house!
Anyway, before we all went out to collect candy, there was a potluck event at a house in the neighborhood. I was sitting at a table and chatting with several fourth grade girls when one of them asked me how old I was. I look quite young (and I AM quite young), so she was surprised when I told her I was in graduate school. She then asked what I was studying and I said “Occupational therapy!”
…at which point she tilted her head, screwed up her face and said, “What is THAT?”
And at this moment, faced by a curious 10-year-old and unsure of what to say, I found myself in my toughest “explanation of occupational therapy” scenario yet! Whereas adults or other people might be able to listen and understand my one-minute elevator speech describing the “Who, What, When, Where and Why” of occupational therapy, I figured this child was going to give me about 25 seconds of her attention at most. So after a moment of panic and hesitation – I didn’t want to be responsible for misinforming any little future OT’s – I basically explained what OTs do when they work with children in schools, as I figured this example would be most relevant to her.
I explained to her that an occupational therapist might help a kid who had trouble writing, behaving appropriately in class, socializing, making friends and managing his or her emotions become better at all of these things and thereby perform and fit in better at school. A couple moments passed and I wasn’t sure if what I’d said made any sense to her, but her answer was reassuring and actually quite funny!
After I finished explaining, she immediately replied, “Oh, I know somebody at school who could DEFINITELY use that!” And then she and her friends started giggling as they tried to decide whether or not it they should speak the name of their “socially challenged” classmate who was apparently in need of some occupational therapy!
After this weekend, I’ve learned that while it can often be difficult to explain OT to adults, it seems like it is challenging to explain it to children as well! Of course, in many cases it is probably not necessary for a young child to understand what it is – as long as they are benefiting from it and their parents are aware that it’s not the same thing as PT, lol. However, when working with older children who should be included in making goals and discussing progress (as it is possible given their situation), I think it is imperative that they know what kind of professional they are seeing and what occupational therapy can do (or is doing) for them. Not only is this understanding important so that the client can bring helpful treatment ideas and information to the therapeutic relationship, but it can be a way to help promote knowledge of occupational therapy’s value and utility.
For example, a child who understands that an occupational therapist is working with him in order to help him be more independent or do activities he enjoys could inform the therapist of things he struggles with or things he would like to do but can’t figure out how. On the other hand, I think that a child who never knew what the reason was for going to the colorful office and seeing the therapist each week might be less likely to identify challenges and help make goals, participate actively or be motivated to participate in therapy activities. Of course, this is not always the case and many children just love going to therapy whether or not they know what it is. I just think that whenever the therapist is able, he or she should at least make a small effort to let their clients know what it is they actually do!
In all honesty, I have no idea what occupational therapists tell the children they work with or even if they feel like a child’s knowledge of OT – even at a very basic “OTs help people do things they want to do” level – or lack of knowledge truly impacts their interventions in any way. And again, with younger children I don’t think that there is necessarily a need for this. However, since my “scary” Halloween Q&A session with the little trick-or-treater I’ll be wondering whether this kind of information could help in future therapeutic relationships of mine!