The number of children with special education needs in the United States is on the rise — there are now nearly 7 million students with disabilities across the country, which is up from roughly 6.5 million in 2007-2008, statistics from Edweek reveal. Fortunately, children with special needs can benefit from a number of educational therapies to help them become independent in all areas of their lives. Occupational, speech and play therapy, in particular, can be essential to helping children with special needs strengthen their mental, physical and social abilities and experiences.
Occupational therapy is essential to help children develop and strengthen everyday skills, aid school performance, and even boost confidence and self-esteem. In particular, occupational therapy is used to develop fine motor skills, so children can better perform tasks like writing, computing, grasping and releasing toys, tying their shoes, and using utensils. It can also help improve eye-hand coordination, which leaves children better able to play and participate at school (by batting a ball or copying information down from a whiteboard, for example). Occupational therapy can also have emotional benefits, as it allows children to practice how they manage feelings of frustration and anger and learn positive coping mechanisms. It’s also an effective way of helping children get to grips with basic life skills, including dressing themselves, bathing, brushing their teeth, and feeding themselves. A school occupational therapist can help identify and resolve problems specific to the classroom. Writing aids, weighted items, and special seating, for example, can be provided to prevent children from getting distracted and fidgeting, and strengthen their concentration and focus.
Parents with children about to start working with an occupational therapist should go into the session with a good understanding of what’s involved. According to the Cerebral Palsy Family Network, parents will then be better prepared and empowered to ensure their child gets the best therapy possible to suit their unique needs. Parents can arrange to sit in on one of their child’s occupational therapy sessions and freely ask any questions they may have so they can be confident the goals for their child’s therapy are being addressed. In fact, building a friendly, ongoing relationship with the occupational therapist is of primary importance. Parents can then ask for advice that they can implement at home to help their children achieve their occupational therapy goals. Many occupational therapy exercises feel like games, so they are often easy to repeat at home during playtime.
Speech therapy addresses common challenges with verbal, nonverbal and social language and communication typically experienced by children with autism. The specific challenges experienced by each child can vary greatly; some children on the autism spectrum aren’t able to speak at all, while others are very talkative but struggle to converse properly with others or to understand body language and facial cues during the conversation. Speech therapy ultimately aims to help children strengthen their spoken communication skills, learn nonverbal skills (like body gestures or signs), or learn to communicate via other methods like technology or pictures. Speech therapy can also help children strengthen their mouth, jaw and neck muscles, speak more clearly, respond to questions better, and modulate their tone of voice. After conducting an initial evaluation to assess the individual child’s communication skills and challenges, a speech-language therapist will draw up appropriate goals for the therapy.
Speech therapy is performed with the help of a speech-language therapist — either with the child one-on-one, in the classroom, or in small groups of children. The type and level of play is matched to the age and needs of the children. In particular, articulation therapy involves the therapist performing correct sounds and syllables, typically during play sessions. The child is shown how to make specific sounds (like the “r” sound) and the speech therapist may also demonstrate how the tongue should be moved and shaped to form these sounds. Alternatively, language intervention activities involve the speech therapist talking and playing with the child with the help of toys, books or pictures to boost language development. The therapist may show the child how to use correct vocabulary, and grammar and repetition exercises may be used to improve communication skills. Finally, feeding and swallowing (or oral-motor) therapy involve strengthening the muscles in the mouth used for swallowing, eating and drinking. A number of oral exercises are performed, including jaw, tongue and lip exercises and facial massage. The child may also be encouraged to try various different food textures and temperatures to increase their oral awareness as they chew and swallow.
An alternative to traditional talk therapy, play therapy can help children with special education needs to develop important skills like language, social communication, self-control, and body awareness. During a play session, a therapist oversees the child’s exploration of the play environment as they work through their feelings, ultimately making them seem more manageable and less scary and overwhelming. The therapist may only intervene when the child encounters a problem they need help solving. In particular, sand tray therapy is a popular activity, which involves the children using certain play materials as a way to discover new things about themselves. While some children may progress quickly with play therapy, other children may require a longer period of time to become comfortable in the environment and release their inner thoughts and worries through play. Group sessions can be conducted with other children to boost their confidence, working in groups as well as help them learn how to make compromises when necessary. When children with special needs strengthen their confidence in group situations like this, they’re also then better equipped to participate in school environments.
Occupational therapy, speech therapy, and play therapy can provide essential support for children with special needs. Using a plan tailored to their individual situation, these therapies can work to address the physical, cognitive, social and emotional needs of each unique child.