When is it time to get off the therapy hamster wheel?
From the moment our babies are diagnosed, we start thinking about therapy. One mom I know was trying to set up early intervention services while pregnant after she received a prenatal diagnosis of Down syndrome.
Early intervention is federally mandated for a reason. The sooner a child can get help in speech, language, movement, fine motor skills, and other areas – the better. According to the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, the neural circuits in our brains are at their most pliable during the first 3 years of life, making this an optimal learning time.
As our little ones age out of early intervention and enter preschool, they receive services through their Individualized Education Program (IEP). IEP goals have an academic focus, so many parents opt to do private therapy. We cart our kids to a clinic after school, or, if we’re lucky, find a therapist in our insurance plan who will come to the home.
No matter how fun we try to make it, no matter how amazing the therapist, these appointments can be disruptive. Our kids just want to be kids. Sometimes they need to decompress after school. Sometimes we, as their parents, need some down time.
My now 9-year-old son Arlo started preschool when he was two. He left early intervention and started private speech therapy twice a week, physical therapy once, and aquatics therapy once. Arlo, baby brother Emil, and I were out and about all of the time. It was stressful and exhausting. I was burning the candle at both ends and doing the same to my boys. I felt like I had too. That I was helping Arlo reach his goals. But they weren’t his goals. They were mine.
I wish I could go back in time and tell myself it will all be OK. Just stop. Stop trying to fix Arlo and just enjoy him. Let him play with Emil at home instead of in a waiting room. Let nap time be uninterrupted. Go to a playground. Go to a cafe. Take a nap with them.
Therapy isn’t magical. My son was lucky enough to work with many talented professionals who I greatly respect and are my dearest friends to this day. They’re amazing, but this isn’t witchcraft. Every kid learns in their own time. Breakthroughs are rare unless a child is at that point developmentally. Arlo’s global developmental delays are significant despite hours of various therapy every week because that’s where he is. Intervention helps, but sometimes our kids just need time.
The truth is, the therapy was more for me. It was a reassurance that I was doing the right thing. In the haze of acceptance of my son’s disability, I was covering all the bases the medical community tells us we should to so our children assimilate.
Now that Arlo is older, we spend our precious free time outside instead of clinicians offices whenever possible. Swimming lessons, playgrounds, soccer practice, hiking. In a perfect world, the early intervention model would carry through past the age of 3 so a therapist could meet us at these places every so often. (Yes, some of them can, but insurance makes it a cost-prohibitive venture and that’s a whole other story.) Then again, our children deserve to play at a playground without a grown up telling him how to swing or trying to get him to write on a chalk board.
The funny thing is, I learned as much as Arlo did in all those years of therapy. I paid attention. The beauty of early intervention is that these therapists come to your home and work within your parameters. They show you how to help your child thrive in your every day activities.
Those lessons have stuck with me and impact everything we do – reading books, dinner time, handling difficult moments, showers, homework, walking the dog.
It’s so ingrained I hardly notice it. Then, on a recent fall walk we experienced the therapy trifecta.
Physical: walking, running and jumping.
Speech: talking about birds, water, trees, and leaves.
OT: perhaps the best fine motor/executive planning/”you name it” exercise could be finding the common jewelweed plant. Its orange flowers go to seed in the fall. They burst when you gently squeeze them. It’s addictive fun for kids and grown ups.
A gorgeous hike after school is a sensory wonderland that beats an office setting any day of the week.
Questions about therapy or early intervention? Call our helpline: 1.877.567.1122