Encompass Blog

Occupational Therapy: Discovering Meaning During Times of Uncertainty at Any Age

April 30, 2020  |  Child Development, Pediatric Therapy  |  By Kim Hall, MS, OTR/L

Child helping with laundry

Occupation as a way to avoid feeling useless:

As I was thinking about April being Occupational Therapy (OT) month, it occurred to me that the foundation of OT is one we can all draw from as we experience these uncertain times. One of the founders of OT, William Rush Dunton, Jr., once conveyed his belief in the healing role of occupation. He wrote: 

“Occupation is as necessary to life as food and drink. Every human being should have both physical and mental occupation. All should have occupations which they enjoy. Sick minds, sick bodies, sick souls, may be healed through occupation.” (1919)

While I wholeheartedly agree with this, I also believe that occupation can be beneficial for healthy people as well, both young and old. Occupation brings human beings pleasure and a feeling of purpose or accomplishment. Of course, there are factors that affect our opportunity for occupation, such as time. When we have time, we slow down and discover new occupations to engage in or spend more time on occupations we have loved and enjoyed for years.

Adolf Meyer, a neuropathologist and champion of the profession of occupational therapy, saw time as key to unlocking the benefits of occupation. Sharing his philosophy of occupational therapy when professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University, Meyer stated:

“The awakening to a full meaning of time as the biggest wonder and asset of our lives and the valuation of opportunity and performance as the greatest measure of time; those are the beacon lights of the philosophy of the occupation worker.” (1922)

Since we have a lot more time on our hands right now, many of us are re-evaluating our lives during this period of social distancing and staying at home. We are seeking purpose, because purpose lessens the monotony of every day, leading to less depression, discouragement, and desperation. None of us want to feel uselessOne Occupational Therapist named Meta Anderson said that occupational therapy “should inspire the feeling of pleasure and self-respect which comes from being useful, and the feeling of power which comes from progressive daily achievement.” (1920)

Occupation and children:

While this makes perfect sense to most of us for adults, one might wonder how this applies to children. What is their occupation or daily work? Do they need a sense of purpose, and if so, how do they achieve it?

The answer is YES! Children do need a sense of purpose in their lives, and they can achieve it from the simplest of ways. Pulling weeds, cleaning a bathroom sink, drawing a favorite cartoon character, or building a block structure can all bring meaning to a child’s day. If you’ve ever seen the beaming smile of accomplishment when a child completes a task given to them for the first time, you know what I mean. They feel useful, and this brings joy. 

But what if that child has some challenges; whether physical, cognitive, or emotional/behavioral? How do they participate in the same kinds of tasks as other children who don’t have these limitations?  

Here enters the role of the pediatric occupational therapist. We can evaluate the child’s strengths and help them engage in purposeful activities that they show interest in, though they might participate in a different way. The meaning they receive is not any different, nor is the amount of joy they can feel. An OT can set up the environment in a way that fosters independence for the child or provide a support to the child’s body to help give them the movement they need to do a task. If a child cannot self-regulate and their sensory system is overwhelmed, the OT can alter sensory input so that the child is in a calm state first, helping them to perform an activity that just seemed impossible before.  

These uncertain times have caused some challenges for us all in different ways. There are certainly significant impacts on people psychologically, financially, and socially, which can bring about feelings of helplessness, uselessness, and hopelessness. Occupation can help. Throughout history, occupation has worked as a means of healing and bringing meaning to our daily lives. Try something new, reflect on earlier days recalling things you used to enjoy, and don’t forget to support the little ones around us that might need some ideas for how to find that special occupation to bring them joy too. Lastly, find an OT if you believe your child might benefit from their expertise in this area!

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