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What is occupational therapy?


Since you arrived at St. Jude, you have been surrounded by people who are here to treat your child’s disease. They are also here to help your child cope with the impact of the disease on her daily life. You know your child’s doctors, nurses, and child life specialist. Perhaps you have talked to a dietitian or social worker. The help you receive depends on the issues you face. A staff member has referred your child to Rehabilitation Services if she is having trouble with hearing, speech, strength, balance, or anything else that affects her ability to function at her highest level.

The Rehabilitation Services team includes: audiologists, physical therapists, speech-language pathologists, prosthetists, and orthotists. They all work together to help your child achieve or regain a higher level of independence. Another important member of this group is the occupational therapist (OT). Occupational therapists assess and treat the impact of trauma, disease, and disability on a person’s daily life.

What is occupational therapy?

At any age, we all have many occupations (tasks) that fill our daily routine. The lives of children are filled with basic skills such as eating, playing, and interacting well with family and friends. Throughout our lives we work to develop or adapt our skills to perform the tasks of our daily routine.

The OT will help your child thrive and develop the new skills she needs for learning, playing, and growing. This staff member will help your child in many areas – physical, mental, and social. If your child has trouble developing or improving certain skills, the OT will offer ideas for reaching the highest level of function your child can attain.

How does OT differ from other therapies?

Other types of therapy services include physical and speech therapy. Physical therapy (PT) focuses on gross motor skills. This includes big muscle and joint movements needed for walking, running, and playing. PT also covers the motion, strength, and coordination needed for these activities.

Speech therapy focuses on how a person communicates (talks, listens). The speech therapist will look at how a child says letters and words. The therapist will also assess that child’s mental ability to learn and remember words.

Occupational therapy focuses on fine motor skills. This includes the small movements needed for tasks using the arms and hands. These skills are used in dressing, eating, playing with toys, and writing. OT covers the motion, strength, and coordination of these small muscles and joints.

Your OT can also assess and treat much more than muscles and joints. This staff member will offer treatment for the mental, social, and emotional skills that your child needs to take part in activities that are suited for her age. The OT will look at how your child learns about the world around her. This includes how she uses information to solve problems and to understand how things relate – people and objects, time and space, cause and effect.

What else can OT do?

Along with the five senses – hearing, sight, smell, taste, and touch -- movement also plays a role in the way our brains process information about the world around us. Some children have problems trying to receive, organize, and process information from one or all of the senses. This condition is called sensory processing disorder. These children may be more sensitive or less sensitive than other children to the stimuli they receive from their senses. OT treatment may include:

  • Helping the child tolerate hair washing,
  • Helping the child re-learn how to make parts of the body move together, or
  • Teaching the child ways to sit quietly in a classroom to learn.

OT may also help your child if she has vision problems or trouble with perception. These skills are needed for success in school as well as at home. For example, a child may have problems finding a specific word on a chalkboard full of writing. Or a child may have trouble when trying to complete puzzles, find shapes, or read. OT can help children enhance their visual skills, develop eye-hand coordination, or offer ideas that will make play or learning easier.

What will the OT do with my child?

First the OT will assess your child to find out if there are any areas of concern. Next, the OT will work with you and your child to create a treatment plan and set goals. Treatment may include teaching a child new skills or another way of doing a task. For example, if a child is unable to use both hands she may learn to tie her shoes with one (1) hand. The OT may give the child helpful tools, such as elastic shoelaces, and then teach the child how to use them. Goals are often reached through play. Play is crucial for every child’s development.


To learn more about occupational therapy, call Rehabilitation Services, and ask to speak to an occupational therapist. If you are inside the hospital, dial 3621. Locally, call 595-3621. If you are outside the Memphis area, dial toll-free 1-866-2STJUDE (1-866-278-5833), extension 3621.


This document is not intended to take the place of the care and attention of your personal physician or other professional medical services. Our aim is to promote active participation in your care and treatment by providing information and education. Questions about individual health concerns or specific treatment options should be discussed with your physician.

St. Jude complies with health care-related federal civil rights laws and does not discriminate on the basis of race, color, national origin, age, disability, or sex.

ATTENTION: If you speak another language, assistance services, free of charge, are available to you. Call 1-866-278-5833 (TTY: 1-901-595-1040).

ATENCIÓN: si habla español, tiene a su disposición servicios gratuitos de asistencia lingüística. Llame al 1-866-278-5833 (TTY: 1-901-595-1040).

تنبيه: إذا كنت تتحدث باللغة العربية فيمكنك الاستعانة بخدمات المساعدة اللغوية المتوفرة لك مجانا. .يرجى الاتصال بالرقم. 5833-278-866-1  (الهاتف النصي: 1040-595-901-1).