Occupational therapy for special-needs students moves online

All of the exercises that OTs use with students in a face-to-face setting “can happen in a virtual environment,” too, says occupational therapist Robyn Chu.

A young girl sits at a computer, wearing headphones. Her image appears in a box on the left side of the screen, and above it she can see the smiling face of her female instructor. On the main part of the screen is a black-and-white drawing of a girl performing an exercise called the “side-step dance.”

“We’re going to do … that side-step [dance] first,” the instructor says. “Ten times, opposite arm and leg.”

“OK,” the girl replies. She removes her headphones and stands in front of her computer, still visible on the screen, then performs the exercise as her instructor—a licensed occupational therapist—watches closely from hundreds of miles away.

The girl is using a new service from the San Francisco company PresenceLearning, which has provided live online speech therapy to thousands of K-12 students in the last few years through a process known as “telepractice.”

Now, PresenceLearning has expanded its services to include online occupational therapy services as well—something it believes can address a growing challenge for schools.

Nationwide, about one in five special-needs students is identified as needing occupational therapy services, the company says. But some 9 percent of OT positions at schools and health clinics across the country remain unfilled, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

“We don’t have enough [occupational therapists] overall,” says PresenceLearning co-founder Clay Whitehead. And that’s especially true in rural areas, Whitehead adds, where OTs or the students they serve might have to travel hundreds of miles to complete face-to-face sessions.

PresenceLearning has seen great success in providing speech therapy to students online, and online OT seemed like a natural extension of that service.

(Next page: How online occupational therapy services work)

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