This article originally appeared in Belonging Early Years Journal.
Little Sarah is twirling with gusto in her purple sequined skirt. When she sees me, she stops momentarily, rushes forward, hands flapping in delight, and yells ‘Me! Me! Me!’
Just another energetic toddler, full of life and seeking attention. But Sarah isn’t your average 3 year old.
“She just twirls all day and her Mum and Dad are pretty upset that she never brings home a drawing. She also has trouble speaking, going to the toilet or even just sitting still,” says her room leader at the childcare centre.
The plea may be unspoken, but from my experience, I know what many parents and teachers want from a therapist like me – can you help us fix the problem? Fix Sarah.
Sarah is smart, although it’s not obvious because of the challenges she faces. I listen to the room leader and remember the things we’ve learned about Sarah before. She loves routines and clear expectations: things broken down into small, discrete steps that allow her to experience success.
It is natural for parents to do anything to see their kids do well. So I understand why people want a cure when a child doesn’t develop “like they should”.
However, a holistic approach to therapy is about far more than fixing ‘a problem’. Therapy supports a child to feel that they are valued just as they are. That they belong to their community.
We support parents and families to learn a different perspective, to help them recognize and be proud of their child’s unique way of existing in the world.
In fact, most of what therapists do is work with a child’s ‘circle of support’ (family, teachers, friends) to understand the child’s strengths and interests as well frustrations and obstacles.
But how do these words, visions and ambitions translate to helping a child sit up by himself or to communicate that she is hungry?
Therapy is all about day-to-day, practical ideas to help little hands and feet do what they want to do and go where they want to go.
He’s talking – just differently
Armed with a kit of creative ideas, a strengths-based approach and some very large empathic ears, my next stop is Milton’s house. Milton, his mum and twin sister are about to have a morning snack. Perfect timing.
I remind Milton’s mum that we could practice using his communication device, to help him ‘tell us’ what he wants to eat. “But if he uses the device, he won’t learn how to talk, right?”
Gently, I remind her that this in fact is Milton’s way of talking and that if he can ‘talk’ using pictures, he’s less likely to throw his custard on the floor and run over it with his wheelchair!
She laughs and agrees to keep trying,: “I know, it’s just hard to let go of that idea sometimes”.
So much is made of these first milestones. The first step, first word, first day of school.
I try to get parents to understand their child can experience these firsts – it’s just that the picture might not be the one we are used to seeing in glossy ads in magazines and TV, or even in the next playground.
Milton uses every ounce of energy to turn on his device and accurately select ‘yoghurt and fruit’ from the snacks page. He grins broadly when the device barks out the selection, making his twin sister giggle and bringing a cautious smile to his mother’s face.
One size doesn’t always fit all.
Scope therapists work passionately to ‘get’ what is unique about each child and family we support. We work hand in hand with them – the imaginative and collaborative problem solving that happens with our families is fundamental to creating solutions that stick.
We begin each day imagining that we will be able to change the world and make life a bit better, nicer, and more palatable for each child we meet.
Baby steps forward.
Sarah and I are still twirling and giggling. I then use a giant purple marker to scribble a vague figure without legs on the easel. Sarah stops, watches and looks questioningly at us. “Oh that’s our friend Cecil the twirler. Cecil can’t twirl because he has no legs. Will you help give him some legs?” She allows me to hold her hand with the giant marker and suddenly, we have drawn Cecil’s legs! We keep twirling to celebrate!
The room leader grins and writes Sarah’s name on the drawing as we talk about other ways to engage with Sarah and build her skills. As I’m heading out the door, Sarah momentarily looks up from her twirling and waves bye-bye.
Therapy does not focus on what a child can’t do – because every child ‘can’, just sometimes in a different way. Therapy is always about seeing the possibility in every child.
Christine Samy is an occupational therapist with more than 15 years’ experience, and currently works in Scope’s Marketing team.
Scope provides a range of therapy services working with children and young adults – occupational therapy, physiotherapy, psychology and speech therapy.