Demonstrating the Value of OT for Children With Autism
Ashley Opp Hofmann
In May 2008, Redbook magazine featured the work of occupational therapist Beverly Burnett, owner of Play and Learn Pediatric Occupational Therapy in Las Vegas, Nevada. The second in a series of articles following a child with autism, Ryan Kalkowski, and his family, the May issue demonstrates how occupational therapy intervention in a child’s early years can help stymie the effects of this disease.
“[Ryan’s] parents sought services because they felt early intervention was important but were unhappy with the lack of services they were receiving from the state,” explains Burnett. “They clearly were concerned and looking for the best intervention that they could arrange for him quickly.”
When she met Ryan in October 2007, Burnett immediately thought he had autism. However, despite being taken to various medical professionals and having an evaluation with Nevada Early Intervention Services (NEIS), he had not been diagnosed with this condition. Without a diagnosis, Ryan could not receive all the therapy services he needed. But the Kalkowskis were convinced that their son had autism, and they sought private occupational and speech therapy.
Burnett recommended occupational therapy and began working with Ryan once a week. “Initially, his progress was rapid,” Burnett says. Before therapy, “He had gotten to a point where he wasn’t using his fingers anymore to pick up his food. He had started using the back of his hands to pick up something like a French fry. He didn’t want to touch things and had a lot of other sensory issues. We started to do deep-pressure brushing and tactile things as part of the occupational therapy. Within 2 weeks, he was finger-feeding and touching things again.” During this time, Ryan finally received an autism diagnosis from a pediatrician.
The jump from the Kalkowskis not being able to have their son’s autism acknowledged by NEIS to becoming the featured family of Redbook was a big one, but it didn’t happen accidentally. “I think a lot of parents go on the Internet to search things out when they don’t get answers or they feel like they’re not getting the right answers,” says Burnett. “Ryan’s mom was doing gobs of research, getting as much information as she could about autism.” During her search she responded to Redbook’s call for families with an autistic child, and the Kalkowskis were ultimately chosen for the article series.
“I thought it was great,” Burnett says of the article. She enthusiastically agreed to participate, allowing the magazine staff to observe her working with Ryan. “I hope the Redbook article shows that these kids can be treated and that with treatment, they make progress,” she emphasizes. “Early intervention is so important. If parents are not happy with the types of services or lack of services they’re receiving, then I hope [the article] gives them the incentive to seek other help. It’s out there and can make a difference.”
Burnett hopes that the Redbook piece will boost awareness not only of autism, but of occupational therapy. “A lot of families don’t even know that occupational therapy is a treatment service that children with autism can benefit from,” Burnett says. “We [occupational therapists] are the only ones who look really closely at the sensory- and motor-based needs of these kids and address those issues.” For Burnett, treating the sensory integration aspects of autism constitutes the foundation of treatment. “If sensory issues are not addressed, then the brain and body are not open to absorb the stuff they need to,” Burnett says.
Ryan’s improvement has given his family hope, and his story has given many parents of children with autism the knowledge that occupational therapy is a treatment that can help.