Occupational Therapists (OTs) work with people of all ages and abilities to help them access their independence, supporting them to regain or develop skills they need in everyday life.

People may need the help of an OT for many reasons, such as long-standing health conditions, mental illness, or learning disabilities.

When working with children, an OT aims to improve their ability to engage with their day-to-day activities, including education, play, and personal care, which in turn develops their long-term independence.

There are growing concerns that access to vital OT services for children with special educational needs (SEN) is declining, with therapy support for children with disabilities at 30% of the levels of support pre-pandemic.

A new working group has been set up to assess children and young people with learning disabilities’ access to therapy, which hopes to highlight the importance of the work of OT’s to the UK government.

With that in mind, we wanted to share the top 5 ways OTs help SEN children.

1 – Education

OT’s can support SEN children and young people in school to help them manage their sensory needs and engage better with their classes. Part of this work can be around managing sensory processing issues that children are experiencing that stop them from focusing.

Children with sensory processing issues can be under or over-stimulated easily by the sights and sound around them. This could be caused by a range of things such as a ticking clock, an alarm, a radiator, or a busy dinner hall. If a child is over-stimulated, they may actively try and avoid being in those environments or be constantly distracted and worried about new or sudden sounds.

If a child is under-stimulated, they will constantly want to touch and connect with the world around them. This could be seen as ‘disruptive’ in the classroom as the child wants to touch things they shouldn’t, be continuously moving, or be boisterous.

An OT will define what is causing the over or under-stimulation and implement ways to manage those needs. This could be by providing sensory toys or jewellery to fidget with or implementing time away from the classroom specifically to move around.

Each child will need something different, and the work of an OT is vital to keep SEN children with these needs happy and engaged in school.

2 – Gross Motor Skills

Children who struggle with gross motor skills can have balance, coordination, strength, and endurance. These struggles can affect the child’s ability to play and experience day-to-day activities with other children like jumping, hopping, and catching, and throwing a ball.

Children with autism can experience developmental problems with their gross motor skills, making them more likely to struggle with participating in play activities that involve these skills. This, in turn, can add to any difficulties with socialising and negatively impact their self-esteem.

OT’s work with children to develop their gross motor skills. They do this using varying techniques, including:

  • Throwing and catching balls of different weights and sizes
  • Obstacle courses
  • Riding bikes

These activities help with strength, endurance, balance, and coordination.

3 – Fine Motor Skills

Unlike gross motor skills, fine motor skills involve using small muscles such as those in the hands. If a child struggles with their fine motor skills, they will have problems with dexterity and strength in their hands and co-ordination between the mouth, eyes, hands, and feet.

Fine motor skills affect all many areas of a child’s life and development. They give children the ability to do day-to-day educational activities such as holding scissors, writing, turning pages. They are also key to self-help skills like doing up buttons, zips, tying shoelaces, and holding a knife and fork.

Children with special educational needs that are autistic or dyspraxic in particular can struggle with the development of their fine motor skills. OTs work with SEN children to help them with their fine motor skills using activities that are fun and/or centred around play.

These can include:

  • Dot-to-dot paintings
  • Popping bubble wrap
  • Picking up coins with one hand
  • ‘Pick-up’ games using tweezers like ‘Operation’
  • Playing with ‘Theraputty’ – a type of therapy play-doh.

These activities help to develop coordination, dexterity, and strength in the hands and fingers.

4 – Self-help Skills

Self-help skills in SEN children can cover various activities that involve fine motor skills and deal with sensory issues that can make day-to-day activities more difficult.

OTs work with children to help them with skills such as dressing and undressing, brushing their teeth and hair, and eating using cutlery by developing their fine motor skills. As well as using the fun activities listed above, they will also model the skills with children.

Sensory issues can prevent a child from being able to master self-help skills. Sensory issues can present in many ways, including:

  • Water – a child may not like getting their face or hair wet.
  • Wearing clothes – some clothes or labels may feel uncomfortable, itchy, or tight.
  • Oral discomfort – putting a toothbrush in a child’s mouth may be extremely uncomfortable for them, or they may not like the taste or smell of the toothpaste.

OTs can help children with sensory issues develop their self-help skills by offering practical solutions such as switching toothpaste to desensitize gums or covering a child’s face to stop the sudden splashing of water.

5 – Spatial Awareness

Spatial awareness is a vital, complex skill that children need to develop early.

In its simplest form, it’s the ability to be aware of where you are in a given space. It also involves understanding where other objects are in relation to yourself and each other. Without spatial awareness, we would always bump into things, fall over, and generally find it very difficult to navigate the world.

For most children, this complex skill develops naturally at a young age. However, children with autism, cerebral palsy, and other conditions can find this very difficult. OTs work with SEN children to determine if they are struggling with spatial awareness. They do this by observing children in activities such as playing games and sports where they may appear clumsy and struggle to judge the distances between themselves and others.

Once an OT has determined a child has spatial awareness difficulties, they will begin to work closely with the child, their school, and parents.

OT’s will help a child with their spatial awareness using activities such as:

  • Throwing beanbags into hoops.
  • Throwing buckets over lines.
  • Obstacle courses.
  • Music, movement, and dance.
  • Playing games like Bowls or Marbles.

These activities help children judge distance and placement. They also help the child use their body to become more aware of it in space and develop coordination.

OT’s will also set tasks for children to do at home with parents to aid with spatial awareness, such as hiding and finding certain objects, and using language pro-actively to help children determine where objects are in the house. For example, ‘the bed is in the bedroom, and the pillow is on top of the bed.’

It’s clear OTs play a crucial role in helping SEN children succeed in their education and live a more independent, social, and fulfilling life.

Without the support of an OT to address some or all of the 5 above areas in a child’s development, it is likely they would fall behind in their education and suffer impacts on their self-esteem and well-being.