Occupational therapy (OT). What does it mean? Why do you need it?

First off, don’t be afraid. It’s typically a therapy for children (or adults) who need help with an issue that affects their day-to-day life. School systems will generally offer OT to children who have issues holding a pencil and writing. But oftentimes, that isn’t enough. The whole body needs work. That’s when private practice OT comes into play.

Occupational Therapy is fun. The idea is to get kids moving. Jacqueline Ward Images

Ten years ago there were no options for pediatric occupational therapy in South Walton. But now, thanks to the expansion of Sacred Heart Hospital and a growing need for services, parents have multiple options.

Where Do I Start?

If you see your child struggling, ask your pediatrician for a referral to the Florida early intervention program called Early Steps. Early Steps assists children ages birth to 3. An Early Step therapist will schedule a home visit. From there, Walton County Early Steps therapist Lauren Sutter explained it’s team approach between Early Steps, therapists and the family. That often involves working with either Sacred Heart on the Emerald Coast Occupational Therapy or Brain Harmony. Both are pediatric occupational therapy centers

Carol Garner-Houston works with a client in WaterColor. Jacqueline Ward Images

 Patient Stories

Tami Huston, at Sacred Heart Occupational Therapy, specializes in genetic and developmental hand disorders.

I recommend parents advocate for their child once in Early Steps,” Tami said. “Get your therapist on board if you need to and fight for those necessary therapies. It makes a difference.”

A patient of Tami’s, Coral Lee Blanton, has Arthrogryposis, a bone arthritic condition.

It’s a painful condition. We’ve done lots of splinting and taping with her. We have to help her hand have support. I’m helping her parents so they know how to retrain her arm and muscles. She has functional usage now.”

Courtney Miller, an occupational therapist at Sacred Heart, specializes in sensory issues.

A kids job is to play,” she said. “Being able to empower them to go to the grocery store, or to go to Walt Disney World, that means everything to me.”

Courtney often helps her patient’s families establish visual schedules for the home to reduce anxiety and meltdowns in the mornings.

I made a visual list for one patient on how to get out of the car. We broke down each step because the child was having such a hard time. That fight or flight response was constantly on.”

To help with calming some of those biochemical responses in the body, many therapists are turning towards technology to help their patients.

Carol Garner-Houston, co-founder and Chief Medical Officer of Brain Harmony in Grayton Beach, is a proponent of the Integrated Listening System for many of her patients. 

She created a home-based program that combines coaching through video conference. The cost is less and families don’t have to drive to therapy visits.

I began using this wonderful technology with my patients two years ago,” Carol said. “I was astounded at the progress and measurable gains that those patients made. You can use it to increase attention span, treat auditory processing disorders, aid with sensory processing issues, increase reading comprehension … the possibilities and applications are just incredible.”

The iLS program uses the neuroplasticity principle (that the brain can heal itself). The headphones (and a pillow called the Dreampad) send gentle stimulation to the cochlea of the inner ear, which activates the vestibular system and creates neuronal connections in the brain.

Tami Huston works with a patient. Jacqueline Ward Images

Carol explained once the vestibular system begins functioning properly, children are able to handle sensory challenges and see gains in expressive language, reading, writing and balance. The throwing of balls, swinging on swings, riding a skateboard — all of these activities engage different parts of the brain. 

For some kids, bending down to pick up a ball is impossible.

Courtney Miller works with a client at Sacred Heart.

“When they look down their sense of equilibrium is lost. They get dizzy. No one plays in their yards anymore. There are simple movements in play that help tremendously. That’s what I do each day,” Carol said, “we work and we play and we use technology to help these kids.”