Occupational Therapy can be one of the most helpful therapies your child does.
But how to make it continually appealing?
Ask Amy Rogge!
By Marijke Jones
If you’re like most families with a struggling child, you’ve got a dozen things a week to get your child to: therapies, tutoring, and “regular” kid activities like soccer and piano lessons. Is occupational therapy one of them?
OT is one of the most important supports for a child with learning or behavior issues.
It gives specific skills training, helps organize brain function, and calms the nervous system so that constant anxiety doesn’t sabotage everything your child tries to do. That last one is important because when deeper, sensory integrative functions are ‘off,’ it throws the brain into a state of mild alarm, making the nervous system prone to going into full anxiety mode and impairing higher learning functions.
So what’s not to love about OT?
Well, parents think it’s awesome. Kids – sometimes not so much.
Understandably, kids often get tired of therapy and getting them to continue going can be tough. It’s hard work getting ‘fixed’ all the time!
Meet Amy Rogge: maverick, visionary, and OT extraordinaire.
Amy Rogge is a woman on a mission. Her goal: to make pediatric OT fun, engaging and engrossing for every child that comes to her.
A pediatric OT for over ten years, Rogge spent the first few years of her career in a typical sensory clinic. Although she was getting results, she found it frustrating because most of the kids clearly didn’t want to be there.
“I had to dig really deep to find the passion and creativity necessary to keep engaging them.”
Part of the problem, she believed, was that typical OT approaches send the underlying message that “something is wrong with you,” and this or that activity is going to “fix” it.
“But there’s nothing wrong. These kids are just on a different developmental curve. And I’ve found that connecting with a child in a meaningful way, appealing to their curiosity, their intelligence, and their wonder is a much more effective way to help them with their weaknesses.”
How does she do that? Pretty straightforward, really:
Develop a relationship with them. Take them outside as much as possible. Involve animals. Find meaningful activities that meet both their interests and their therapeutic goals.
Rogge made her home and property into a clinic, which includes ample outside space as well as six chickens, one cat, one dog, and two goats.
“There are so many therapeutic activities you can do with animals, and children relate to the purpose of the activity. The fact that they’re connecting with something cute and smaller than they are engages their compassion and genuine interest.”
Think of the possibilities that a single baby chick offers: Tactile-defensive children must first warm their hands by rubbing their arms and legs. High-strung children, or those who have trouble with self-control, must first calm themselves and modulate their movements and voices. Those who struggle with proprioception must be aware of how tightly they are holding the chick. Connecting with an animal also requires patience, anger and frustration management, and tracking the animal’s responses.
“All of these activities are motivated by compassion and connecting to the animal. It gets the child out of focusing only on himself,” Rogge says…a valuable goal in and of itself.
Then there’s the whole world that animal care offers, with brainstorming, building, problem solving and the executive function skills necessary to carry out one’s plans.
The inside of Rogge’s home clinic has more typical swinging, climbing, and sensory activities; but even there you can find unusual choices.
Children can bake, make glass mosaics, do various building projects, or take apart electronics, to name a just a few activities. All of these build executive function skills, visual-spatial relationships, hand strength and dexterity. A child can also build shoulder strength and do midline-crossing work by painting a wall.
The results are universally positive.
“It’s one of the few things he’ll willingly leave the house for,” says Alia Fisher of her son Calvin, a 10-year old with autism. Calvin has become fascinated with chickens, and has put a great deal of his own time into learning all he can about them. Recent sessions have found him cleaning their coops, digging for worms, and brainstorming how to keep them from pooping in their own food.
Rogge loves involving animals and the outdoors because “so much of childhood is wild. The wonder of discovery, of engaging in real life, really speaks to their spirit.”
The biggest challenge is breaking down the benefits in her reports. “But that’s on me,” she says. She believes that modern OT methods have been shaped by the medical-model requirement of explaining each task clearly, and the chaos of real life is not always so obligingly clear.
But the benefits are worth it, as Rogge’s many happy clients can attest.
“Calvin would live there if he could,” says his mother.