Home School Management Opinion: Why every school should have an Occupational Therapist

Opinion: Why every school should have an Occupational Therapist


Opinion: Why every school should have an Occupational Therapist

by Sam Hunter

For autistic children, returning to school can be synonymous with anxiety and fear. Sensory issues, communication barriers, and changes to routine are just a few ways that autistic children can struggle in the school environment. Without the right support, autistic students can not only struggle academically but also experience social isolation and low self-esteem that can follow them into adulthood.

With autism affecting one in 100 Australians – the majority of whom are school children aged 5 to 14 – it’s time that we introduce occupational therapists (OTs) into the school setting to help these students thrive.

Recent research by the University of South Australia (UniSA) supports this, emphasising the importance of adopting a ‘family-centred and individualised approach’ to support autistic children in educational settings. OTs are uniquely trained and qualified for this exact purpose, having the knowledge, experience and skills that allow them to identify barriers to education, understand the student’s potential, and empower students with the tools they need to learn in a way that works for them.

An OT’s expertise lies in understanding the individual needs of students and tailoring interventions to promote their holistic development, keeping the family and student’s needs as central in the clinical work. Involving a wider team approach aids continuity of care and collaboration between home and school. By focusing on a family-centered approach, schools can create an inclusive environment that acknowledges and accommodates the diverse needs of every child and family.

In many cases, this means adopting strategies that go beyond conventional teaching methods. Using their specialised training, OTs can work with students, teachers, and parents to create flexible, tailored plans that meet a child’s needs. For example, if an autistic childis struggling to learn how to write, an OT can provide tailored exercises and teaching programs to help develop their fine motor skills. School-based OTs creatively find solutions for students which align well with educational demands and curriculum requirements.

Beyond academic challenges, an OT can also help autistic children with the social and functional skills they need in a school setting. This can include common barriers such as emotional regulation, socialisation skills, managing personal hygiene, and participating in group hobbies. By looking at the needs of autistic students holistically, OTs can collaborate with educators and parents to set children up with the skills and support they need to thrive in and out of the classroom.

While autistic children stand to benefit most from having this support, introducing OTs into the school setting will undoubtedly act as a catalyst for positive change within the school system as a whole. Many children will experience educational barriers throughout their lives, and fostering an environment where every student feels supported is the best way to help them reach their full potential.

An OT’s role extends far beyond the traditional therapeutic setting. They are advocates, cheerleaders, and trusted experts with the knowledge and skills to help children get the most out of their education. By providing schools and parents with the necessary tools and knowledge, we can empower them to create an inclusive educational experience for all children. Together, we can ensure that every child, regardless of their unique needs, has the opportunity to thrive in a school environment that is truly committed to their academic and personal growth.

Sam Hunter is the CEO of Occupational Therapy Australia

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