'Every child is a super hero.' Lessons from an early childhood therapist.

Early intervention. Developmental delay. Autism. Terms that seem increasingly common. Occupational Therapist Christine Samy takes us through her typical day as she works alongside kids who may not fit the mold.

Little Sarah is twirling with gusto in her purple sequined skirt. When she sees me, she stops momentarily, rushes forward, hands flapping in delight and yells. “Me!Me!Me!”

Just another energetic toddler, full of life and seeking attention.

But Sarah isn’t your average 3 year old. Unlike her peers, Sarah only wants to keep twirling. She isn’t interested in crayons or paints or even sitting down. Kids her age are usually adept at conversation but Sarah struggles to say more than three words and refuses to use the toilet.

“She just twirls all day and her Mum and Dad are pretty upset that she never brings home a drawing,” the room leader at her childcare centre laments. The plea is unspoken but from my experience, I know what many parents and teachers want from a therapist like me – can you help us fix the problem? Fix Sarah.

Sarah is smart although it’s not obvious because of the challenges she faces. I listen to the room leader and remember the things we’ve learned about Sarah before. She loves routines and clear expectations, broken down into small, discrete steps that allow her to experience success.

I join Sarah in twirling.

“She just twirls all day and her Mum and Dad are pretty upset that she never brings home a drawing.

Fix it!

As human beings, we are wired for our survival and the survival of our loved ones. Parents in particular would understandably do anything to see their kids thrive. Modern medicine – and the plethora of alternative therapies - has added to our hopes – there’s a pill for almost every ailment you could think of, plus supplements to give you that added advantage.

In this context, I understand the expectation for a cure for a child who doesn’t develop “like they should”.

However, a holistic approach to therapy is about far more than fixing ‘a problem’ that supposedly needs fixing. It isn’t about curing a child or attempting to mould them into someone other than their wonderful selves.

As a therapist, I recognise every child’s potential and ultimately work to extract the most magic from them.

Therapy supports a child to feel that they are valued in their own right and that they wholly belong to their community.

We support parents and families to learn a different perspective, to help them recognise and be proud of their child’s unique way of existing in the world.

In fact, most of what I do is interact with the most important people in a child’s life – their families, teachers and even their friends. It’s working with this ‘circle of support’ to understand what motivates a child, what their strengths and interests are and what frustrations and limitations are obstacles to these children just being children.

But what does this therapy stuff look like and how do these words, visions and ambitions translate to helping little Jonah to sit up by himself or to Wafa being able to communicate that she is hungry?

Indeed, the nuts and bolts of therapy are gritty, down in the sandpit strategies to help little hands and feet do what they want to do and go where they want to go.


He’s talking – just differently,

Armed with kit of creative ideas, a strengths-based approach and very large empathic ears, my next stop is Milton’s house. Milton, his mum and twin sister are about to have a morning snack. Perfect timing.

I remind Milton’s Mum that we could practice using his communication device, to help him ‘tell us’ what he wants for snack. “But if he uses the device, he won’t learn how to talk, right?”.

Gently, I remind her that this in fact is Milton’s way of talking and that if he can ‘talk’ using pictures, he’s less likely to throw his custard on the floor and run over it with his wheelchair.

She laughs and agrees to keep trying, saying “I know, it’s just hard to let go of that idea sometimes”.

I nod, acknowledging that it is hard to let go – so much is made of these first milestones. The first step, first word, first day of school.

I try to get parents to understand their child can experience these firsts – it’s just that the picture might not be the one we are used to seeing in glossy ads in magazines and TV, or even in the next playground.

Milton uses every ounce of energy to turn on his device and accurately select ‘yoghurt and fruit’ from the snacks page. He grins broadly when the device barks out the selection, making his twin sister giggle and bringing a cautious smile to his mother’s face.

One size does not fit all.

My fellow therapists and I work passionately to ‘get’ what is unique about each child and family we support. We work hand in hand with them - the imaginative and collaborative problem solving that happens with our families is fundamental to creating solutions that stick.

I begin each day imagining that I will be able to change the world and make life a bit better, nicer, more palatable for each child I meet.

Baby steps forward

Sarah and I are still twirling and giggling. I then use a giant purple marker to scribble a vague figure without legs on the easel. Sarah stops, watches and looks questioningly at us.

“Oh that’s our friend Cecil the twirler. Cecil can’t twirl because he has no legs. Will you help give him some legs?” She’s skeptical, but allows me to hold her hand with the giant marker and lo and behold, Cecil has legs!

It’s a celebration that is deserving of more twirling.

The room leader gleefully writes Sarah’s name on the drawing as we talk about other ways to engage with Sarah and build her skills. As I’m heading out the door, Sarah momentarily looks up from her twirling and waves bye-bye.

Never is therapy about agreeing that a child is ‘just naughty’ or that there’s nothing more to be done. It’s never about suggesting that a child can’t, rather that of course they can, but perhaps sometimes in a different way.

And it is always about seeing the possibility that a child is her own superhero and that she can inspire others to fly.

Christine Samy is an occupational therapist with Scope, one of Australia’s leading providers of disability support services and therapy services. She has more than 15 years of experience working with children and young adults with multiple challenges and possibilities, across the age spectrum from birth to 18 years. When she’s not twirling, Chris enjoys good food and wine.