The 4-1-1 on common therapies

Receiving a primary diagnosis is not always the light at the end of the tunnel. Faced with an odyssey of interventions and therapies, parents can become overwhelmed, navigating which route will provide the most benefit with the least expenditure of resources. No parent wants to face these decisions alone, especially with no map and a parental “gas tank” on empty.

A diagnosis likely started with your pediatrician, who will become a hub of referrals and assessments to support your child’s health and education. Here is a list of common therapies and their functions. Your doctor can help decide which of these provides the best chance of keeping your child well and feeling successful.

The Big Three

Speech/Language Pathology (Speech Therapy)
Speech therapy is primarily about communication, not just the production of sound for speech. Therapists may utilize sign language and other nonverbal communication. They may recommend an augmentative communication specialist to evaluate the need for other devices or strategies for communication. Social skills groups are a great way for teens to practice techniques to make and maintain friends. Because speech therapists learn about the structure of the palate and esophagus, they can also help with swallowing and feeding. As communication is a vital part of life, this is often the most common therapy recommended.

Physical Therapy
Children may be recommended for physical therapy if they are not meeting developmental milestones, if they have low trunk strength, muscle tone, or balance issues, or if they have a diagnosis that affects bone or muscle, such as Cerebral Palsy or Spina Bifida. Referral to physical therapy is important not only for rehabilitative properties, but also to be assessed for mobility devices and other equipment.

Occupational Therapy
Children may be referred for occupational therapy if they have any of the following: difficulty with fine motor skills, sensitivity to sensory input, trouble regulating emotions, or difficulty with self-care activities. Occupational Therapists often work with teams of educators and other therapists to help a child utilize calming strategies and fit into an inclusive school or play setting.

Vision and Hearing

It’s common for children with developmental delay, especially those with communication issues or frequent ear infections, to receive annual hearing assessment. Audiological systems can affect speech and the vestibular system, which governs balance and walking. Detecting hearing loss early and receiving proper equipment can have big benefits down the road.

Ophthalmology and Vision Therapy: Children who struggle with reading, global developmental delay or certain genetic disorders may need an intensive eye exam. They will be assessed for vision acuity and coordinated eye movement, which may be addressed through eye strengthening exercises associated with vision therapy.

Mental Health

Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA)
This intervention commonly used for kids with ASD involves breaking down complex tasks and appropriate behaviors into recognizable pieces, setting goals and personalized reward systems for those goals, and repeating the process until children can do the tasks on their own. This process is not effective for everyone, but may be ideal for kids with Autism who are motivated by reward and task completion.

Psychology or Counseling
Depending upon the type and severity of the mental health need, a child may be referred to a psychologist, Clinical Social Worker (CSW) or Marriage and Family Therapist (MFT) to address problems through various methods. Therapists may try meditation, mindfulness, or play therapy to get children to express their worries or feelings and suggest tools that can be implemented at home. Psychologists also assess for intelligence (IQ), Autism, ADHD and school readiness. Any form of counseling, especially for young children, will likely require parent involvement through individual therapy or family supports.

Psychiatrists are medical doctors that specialize in the nervous system and finding the correct medication to improve neural pathways and brain function. They are often utilized when a child is unable to regulate themselves through therapy, lowered workload and decreased stress. Psychiatrists may also diagnose and treat clinical mental health illnesses like Anxiety, Depression, Bipolar Disorder and Schizophrenia. Parents should understand that many physical health diagnoses also have a prevalence of associated psychiatric disorders and should not be afraid to treat these early on. Psychiatric referrals typically come from a psychologist or pediatrician.

The Arts

Music Therapy
Children with neurological issues, communicative issues and emotional regulation issues may benefit from music therapy. Music is proven to help bolster neural pathways and repair damage from trauma or surgery. Therapy can include listening, playing instruments, singing, music lessons or performance.

Art Therapy
A child doesn’t need to be a budding Picasso to benefit from art therapy. Often based on breaking down sensory issues, extreme fear, trauma or expressive language challenges, children have experienced breakthroughs in nonverbal communication, self-regulation and self-esteem through the use of art therapy.

Even skeptical parents agree, sometimes the most unlikely kids blossom on stage. Fantastic for speech projection, Social Stories, and self-esteem building, the key is to find an inclusive program with a receptive audience.


League or Therapeutic Recreation
Typically based on inclusive play practices, kids who struggle in therapy settings may thrive in soccer, baseball, dance, swimming, karate or another adaptive sport. These programs can be game-changers for kids who don’t do well in seated, educational settings, but love to move. Look for programs with involved parent volunteers, skilled nurses on staff, and those run by people with disabled family members. An active camp schedule during holiday and summer breaks may benefit those who have difficulty transitioning to an unfamiliar schedule.

Many parents say that horseback riding brings out the best in their kids. The cadence of a horse’s gait and being astride the animal tends to soothe children, improve balance, encourage understanding of visual and nonverbal cues, and teach lessons of empathy in ways that interactions with people do not.

Emily Dolton is a resource specialist and mom of two boys, one with 22q 11.2 Deletion Syndrome.