Over the past 10 years, I’ve dedicated most of my time, training, and focus to working with children as a pediatric occupational therapist. Halfway into my career, I decided to take it a step further and focus on working with children on the autism spectrum to help set them up for success in home, school, and community environments.
The prevalence of autism diagnoses have increased over the last 10 years. 1 in 54 children were diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder in 2016. The more I learned about the relationship between pediatric occupational therapy and autism, the more I knew that this niche was my calling.
I was fortunate to have a good mentor who taught me not only how to be a better care provider but also how to have a positive impact on my community through my work. But I wasn’t always so sure this was my calling.
How I Found Pediatric Occupational Therapy
If I’m being completely honest, I never saw myself in pediatric occupational therapy. When I was in grad school, I was extremely interested in the anatomy and structure of the upper arm and hand. I was fascinated by how many things our hands allowed us to do, and how any injury to these areas could make life extremely difficult.
Throughout most of my education I was fully invested in learning everything I could about the arm and upper extremity. At that time, the thought of working with children had never even crossed my mind.
Discovering a New Passion
My path to becoming a pediatric occupational therapist started on a lunch break. Despite my initial interest in the work I was doing with arms and hands, I was starting to feel burnt out in my work. I was catching up with a speech-therapist friend of mine who knew someone who was opening a pediatric occupational therapy clinic. I asked her more about it, and what started as a casual conversation over lunch turned into a phone call, and an invitation to shadow pediatric OTs in this clinic.
I observed these OTs working with an eight-year-old boy who was having difficulty tying his shoes. This is something OTs work with all the time, but just sitting down and saying “today we’re going to work on tying your shoes” wasn’t going to be the best approach for an eight-year-old.
Instead, the OT I was shadowing found ways to incorporate fun into this activity. He said things like “Can you show me how you help Elmo tie his shoes?” and made up songs for all the steps of tying shoes.
After watching a one-hour-long session between this OT and his client, I knew immediately that this was the direction I wanted my career to go. If I had figured this out earlier in graduate school, I would have focused my training and education on working in pediatric occupational therapy. But since I learned this about myself later, I knew I would have a lot to learn to start working with this community.
I was very direct with the OT I was shadowing. I told them I didn’t have much experience working with children, but that I wanted to have them mentor me, so I could dive deeper into this new area of occupational therapy. Thankfully, they agreed, and now I’ve been working with children and their families for almost 10 years.
How to Get Involved with Pediatrics
I’m extremely grateful for the experiences I’ve had in pediatric occupational therapy. I’ve gotten the chance to work with many families on ways they can best support their child’s development. I’ve presented at conferences about my experience working with children on the autism spectrum, and I’ve been able to pay my experience forward as a mentor to other young OTs.
The demand for pediatric occupational therapy is going to increase as we learn more about developmental needs. Recently, a colleague reached out to me looking to shift her own focus to working with children, and asked if I had any tips for someone just getting started in pediatric occupational therapy. Here’s what I told her.
1. Observe as much as you can.
When I first started working at the occupational therapy clinic where I shadowed, my caseload wasn’t full—pretty far from it, actually. But I was still at that clinic several hours every day, because I wanted to observe as much as I could. The staff at that clinic were phenomenal at what they did, and I wanted to learn as much as I could from them.
With the rise in remote care, it can sometimes be tricky to find these observation opportunities, but I’d encourage you to lean on your community anyway. Let your colleagues know you’re interested in observing them, and see what you can work out, or if they have any other connections they can make for you.
2. Stay up-to-date on research.
Even if you’re not yet working with children, bring yourself up to speed on current treatment modalities and trends in the pediatric setting. When I was making this transition, I wanted to make sure I started each day prepared and knowledgeable. If you’re transitioning from a different field, you have a little catching up to do.
Some things I researched were sensory integration, so I had a solid understanding of how our brains interpret and respond to sensory inputs we receive from our environments. This is extremely important when working with clients on the autism spectrum. I also spent some time researching the DIR floortime model, so I could learn to meet my clients where they were at, and follow their lead in our sessions together.
3. Find a mentor.
I realize how lucky I am to have found the mentors I did, and I also recognize that certain circumstances make it extremely challenging for people to find a mentor that’s a good fit. That said, if you’re able to reach out to your colleagues or other people in your field that you look up to, it can be transformative in your professional development.
Whether you’re just starting out in occupational therapy or are exploring new opportunities later in your career, perhaps my biggest piece of advice is to be okay with change. You may enter the field of occupational therapy confident that you want to work with a particular population, or in a certain setting. But as I experienced first-hand, this can always change, and I encourage people to embrace that change. Change pushes us to be better, and being willing to take that leap into a new area might be what enables you to find your true calling as an occupational therapist.