Why do the words 'developmental delay' make parents so anxious?
During my daughter's time in kindergarten last year, her teachers noticed she needed extra help with tasks involving her fine motor skills. She was the youngest in the class, but even kids who were just a month or two older than her seemed to be racing ahead in leaps and bounds.
To help her, we were referred to an occupational therapist, and I found out my daughter had some developmental delays I never knew about, because I really had nothing to compare her to! She is my first child, and yes we went to mother’s groups and playgroups, but I’m not a teacher, so I really didn't notice if she was doing things differently to other kids.
Our OT assessed my daughter and diagnosed her with having hypermobility in the joints in her fingers, so that she has difficulty gripping her pencil, which in turn causes her to get a sore little hand and arm. She is also left-handed, and the OT has explained that left-handed children often develop fine motor skills at a slower pace than their right-handed peers.
Looking back, I can see why she has always hated drawing and colouring in pictures, no matter how much I tried to encourage her. Her poor little hands get tired easily, and we have started working on some exercises to try and strengthen the muscles in her hands.
It’s hard not to get upset when she comes home and tells me her classmates have told her she scribbles. I can see the hurt in her face and it takes all my strength not to crumble into tears. Sometimes I feel like I have failed her, and that we haven’t tried hard enough to help her. But since our first meeting with the OT, we've been given plenty of advice, resources and exercises to help her move forward. We've also been encouraging her to play with toys that help build the fine motor skills, such as LEGO.
I have also been working closely with her teacher to make a plan of where we can go from here and how my husband and I can encourage and support her at home. I tell her that things won’t be like this forever, and that with a bit of work and support, she will get better at everything she does.
You can be referred to an occupational therapist for help for lots of things. According to the Raising Children Network, an OT helps people ‘improve their ability to look after themselves, take part in activities at work, school or preschool’ and that they ‘work with people who might have difficulties because of injury or illness, psychological or emotional problems, developmental delay, intellectual disability or physical disability.’
An occupational therapist is often part of a therapy plan for children on the autism spectrum or those with disabilities, but they also treat children with less complex issues. Some of the most common things an OT might be able to help with are:
Difficulties with fine motor skills
The six fine motor skills are agility, balance, coordination, power, reaction time and speed. Children who may benefit from seeing an OT often struggle with one or more of these fine motor skills.
Some things they might struggle with include:
Opening and closing their lunch bag
Zipping a jacket
Opening and closing containers
Difficulties with songs that require hand actions, such as Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star
They struggle with handwriting and similar activities
My daughter’s handwriting is easily the worst in her class, and I can see just from looking at her work that she gives up after a while because it all becomes too hard. Her drawings of people are also still very immature and when colouring in, she will usually make random 50 cent sized scribbles on the page, rather than aim to colour in the whole picture. She has been using a writing aid to help her grip the pen or pencil properly and this has helped her enormously.
Posture is ‘used to describe the position your body is in when you are sitting, standing, kneeling and lying down.’ A child with poor posture when sitting or standing, such as constant slouching and constantly shifting positions, can put a huge strain on their little body. Poor posture can lead to tight, aching muscles in the neck, back, arms and legs, plus fatigue and pain.
Difficulties with throwing/catching activities
Even now, my almost 3-year-old is more coordinated than my oldest daughter. She struggles to catch and throw a ball, and I think it is all compounded by her left-handedness. Difficulties with throwing or catching can be a sign of delayed gross motor skill development and your child may benefit from seeing an OT.
Have you noticed that your child is fearful of sitting on grass or sand, can’t sit still, dislikes being touched, freaks out at the sound of loud noises or has an aversion to certain foods? They may be struggling with sensory processing, which is another area that an OT can help with. You can read more about sensory processing here.
I can’t stress enough that all children develop at different paces, and it’s vital to keep this in mind when thinking about your own child. Don't feel blindsided or that you should have already known, there are many different problems that can arise with children when they are developing, and having issues in one area, doesn't stop them from progressing in other areas. Lots of children see OT's, or speech pathologists, behavioural therapists, feeding specialists or other medical professionals to help them catch up in their development, which in most cases they will.
There’s no harm in having a chat to your child’s teacher or your GP if you have any concerns. A good teacher will often bring their concerns to you, just as my daughter's teacher did, and the sooner the better, because once you have therapy you can start to work on whatever the issue is.