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Occupational therapy. What exactly does that mean? Why is it needed? What do the therapists do?

Occupational therapy is nothing to be frightened of. It is typically an option for children (or adults) who need help in a particular area that effects their day-to-day life. In our school system, OT is offered to children who might display problems with handwriting. But oftentimes, that isn’t enough and the whole body needs to be addressed. That’s where private practice OT comes into play.

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

For many, their first referral to OT comes through their pediatrician to the Florida early intervention program called Early Steps. If you have a young child (up to age 36 months) showing signs of a development disorder, an Early Steps therapist will schedule a home visit to evaluate the child. From there, Walton County Early Steps therapist Lauren Sutter explained a team approach is taken. That often involves working with either Sacred Heart on the Emerald Coast Occupational Therapy or Brain Harmony. Both are pediatric occupational therapy centers and offer treatment plans based on the individual child’s needs.

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.”

She shared Coral Lee Blanton’s story, who was diagnosed with Arthrogryposis, a bone arthritic condition, shortly after birth.

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 and can continue the therapy at home. She has functional usage now.” Then she pulls her phone out of her pocket and plays a short video clip of Coral using a pair of scissors to cut paper. “I can hold this now!” the little girl yells excitedly into the camera.

Courtney Miller is the other occupational therapist at Sacred Heart. She 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.”

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 new research 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 believes so deeply in the research and clinical findings that she has developed a partnership with iLs to increase distribution and build awareness of the therapy within her community.

In addition to using iLS in the clinic, we have created a home-based program that allows families to bring iLS into their home. We provide coaching through video conferencing,” Lara Shane, co-founder and CEO of Brain Harmony, explained. “Not only is the price significantly less than paying for repeated therapy visits, but there is no stress coordinating the 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 iLS 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 is based on the neuroplasticity principle (that the brain can heal itself). The iLS 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.

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.

She said this is another reason why occupational therapy often looks like play. The throwing of balls, swinging on swings, riding a skateboard … all of these activities engage different parts of the brain and promote healing.

Carol said for some children, the simple action of bending down to pick up a ball and throwing it is seemingly impossible.

When they look down their sense of equilibrium and place in space is lost. They get dizzy. No one plays in their yards anymore. There are simple movements in play that parents can do with their kids that can help them tremendously. Together we can make this better. So that’s what I do each day. We work and we play and we use these wonderful new advancements in technology and we help these kids.”