Types of Therapies: Glossary
Some of the most important people in your child’s early life are the therapists who will help them work toward building the emotional, social, adaptive, and physical skills they’ll need to participate in their school and community. To help you learn about what therapies are available and how they might benefit your child, we’ve provided a brief outline below, along with various focuses and types within each therapy.
Occupational Therapy (OT)
Occupational therapy encompasses a wide range of treatments and interventions for both physical and neurological disabilities that might interrupt a child’s ability to go about their daily life. OTs may work on the following skills:
Fine motor skills are needed to control the movement of our hands and fingers as well as the muscles in our face, tongue, and feet. We use fine motor skills for activities such as grasping objects, tying shoes, writing, and using scissors.
Crossing the midline means moving one’s arm and leg across the middle of the body — this simple movement can improve communication between the left and right hemispheres of the brain, and it’s important for nearly everything we do.
Hand-eye coordination not only helps us process visual information; it’s also needed for tasks such as stacking blocks, throwing a ball, or typing on the computer.
Executive functioning is the ability to plan, initiate, organize, remember, and connect information; better executive functioning skills can help kids shift mindsets, set goals, and self-monitor.
Sensory processing helps us make sense of our body in the environment; sensory integration therapy (SI) helps a child cope with challenges processing sensory input by using proprioceptive play (swings, trampolines, slides), body work (weighted blankets, brushing, massage), and more. A OT may also design a “sensory diet” of sensory activities for your child to do each day to help boost their attention, arousal, and adaptive responses.
Feeding therapy is used to teach a child with sensory or motor challenges how to eat, or to eat more effectively. It may be administered by a speech-language pathologist (SLP), occupational therapist (OT), or both working together. While an SLP might focus more on swallowing and upper gastrointestinal dysfunction, an OT will consider the total-body picture such as posture and the need for adaptive devices.
Nutritional Support Therapy
Nutritional support therapy is used to treat or prevent malnutrition in children who cannot eat enough food. There are two types of nutritional support therapy: enteral nutrition and parenteral nutrition. Enteral nutrition uses a feeding tube, while parenteral nutrition uses a tube inserted directly into the veins in cases where the digestive tract can’t be used. The method, amount, and type of nutrition used all depend on each individual child’s needs.
VitalStim Therapy uses neuromuscular electrical stimulation to treat dysphagia, or difficulty swallowing. A video-fluoroscopic swallow study is typically used beforehand to figure out if your child is having trouble swallowing. During the therapy sessions, electrodes will be placed on the front of your child’s neck, and your child will be encouraged to swallow food or liquids while an electrical current is administered through the electrodes.
Physical Therapy (PT)
Physical therapy uses prescribed exercises and hands-on care to treat a range of injuries, disabilities, and other conditions that affect a child’s ability to learn and use the large muscles (arms, legs, and torso) in their body — otherwise known as gross motor skills. By working to improve gross motor skills, physical therapists can help decrease muscle pain and improve strength and range of movement through developmental activities like crawling or walking, adaptive play, water therapy, flexibility exercises, and more.
Cuevas Medek Exercises (CME)
Cuevas Medek Exercises are used to improve gross motor skills in children with non-degenerative movement disorders and physical disabilities that affect their ability to walk, sit, or stand on their own. PT and CME therapist Dr. Alyssa VanOver explains that CME “exposes kids to anti-gravity in a way that’s unique from traditional therapy.” Rather than provide support at the trunk, or mid-body, she says, a CME therapist supports a child distally, at the hips, legs, or feet while guiding them through a series of exercises. VanOver explains that providing distal support “activates postural control responses as they pertain to head and neck control, trunk control, and standing control that we don't think about on a day to day basis.” This encourages better balance and core strength as a child grows. “CME uses a series of exercises to provoke those postural control responses, as they pertain to head and neck control, trunk control, and standing control."
CME can be used as early as three months old. While VanOver says that CME can be applicable to most children, it is not recommended for a child who has any sort of progressive disorder, or something like osteogenesis imperfecta or a serious hip subluxation, because it’s very demanding. “If your child is exposed to something that is too intense, it actually can have a detrimental effect,” she says.
Gait training is a type of physical therapy that aims to improve a child’s ability to walk. It can be helpful for children with neurological disorders such as cerebral palsy, which affects reflexes, muscle tone, and rigidity. This type of PT can also benefit children with developmental disorders or conditions that cause irregular gait, such as toe walking.
The methods used for gait training may differ depending on your child’s individual needs. Different devices and tools like treadmills, postural supports, spider cages, and electronic stimulation can be used depending on the situation. One such device is the ZeroG system, which supports an individual’s body weight so they can safely practice their gait. When using ZeroG, the patient will be placed into a harness, which is suspended from a track overhead.
Hippotherapy is any therapy — physical, occupational/sensory, or speech-language pathology — that incorporates the use of a horse. As VanOver explains, hippotherapy can be great for children with high muscle tone because simply sitting with their legs apart on a horse provides a great stretch. Hippotherapy is also great for improving balance and trunk and head control because the horse’s gait pattern mirrors our own. She explains, “The trajectory that a horse’s center of gravity follows is the same as ours, so riding exposes a child to the same types of weight shifts that you would experience if you were walking over that period of time, and it allows your trunk to respond to that.”
Intensive Model of Therapy (IMOT)
IMOT is a type of PT used to treat children with cerebral palsy and other neurological disorders. It involves using short, intense sessions of therapeutic exercises for a defined period of time. The time frame and length of intensive sessions will vary depending on your child’s needs, tolerance, and medical issues.
During therapy, the child works on strength and conditioning, improving motor function, and reducing unwanted reflexes. Recent studies indicate that IMOT is more effective than traditional PT for children with spastic cerebral palsy.
Different tools and equipment are used to facilitate IMOT. Many PT programs use the NeuroSuit in combination with a spider cage, which helps maintain proper alignment of the body during movement and redistribute the child’s body weight so that they can focus on proper movement while building strength and motor skills.
A NeuroSuit is made of a vest, shorts, knee and elbow pads, gloves, shoe attachments, and sometimes a hat with hooks on it. Bungee cords are attached to these hooks to support the proper alignment of your child’s body. It can be used to reduce or increase pressure and distribute weight, and is often used to help those with cerebral palsy, global developmental delays, ataxia, chromosomal disorders, and more.
The spider cage is a wire mesh device that uses bungee cords attached to a harness. This allows your child to practice functional skills while developing strength and balance. It may be used with treadmill training to support gait training or as a part of another therapy. The name “spider cage” refers to the eight bungee cords used to attach a child to the frame.
Stretching is intended to increase range of motion while reducing joint and muscle stiffness. To achieve this, therapists may use manual stretching exercises, orthotics, casting, standing tables, or a combination thereof. Some physical therapy programs may use stretching to treat and prevent contractures, or tightening. There is some disagreement among experts on whether manual stretching is an effective PT intervention for children with cerebral palsy.
Like the NeuroSuit, TheraTogs are an external support system that a child wears (sometimes as an undergarment) during therapy to promote alignment. VanOver tells us that the while NeuroSuit came out of Europe, TheraTogs were created by a physical therapist in the United States. “It acts kind of as an extra set of hands,“ she explains. “As a therapist, I always say I wish I had eight more hands, and that’s kind of what the TheraTogs intention is: let’s support you in the best alignment that we possibly can, and then the therapist can focus more on the action movements as opposed to holding the alignment.“
Treadmill training, or treadmill gait training, is a PT technique that uses a treadmill to assist your child with learning to walk, building strength, and increasing coordination. It is typically used for children with neurological and developmental diagnoses such as cerebral palsy and Down syndrome.
Speech therapy (also referred to as speech-language pathology) treats communication difficulties and disorders such as oral motor dysfunction, fluency, speech sounds related to apraxia or dysarthria, and communication issues. For an in-depth look at speech therapy, read our article Speech Therapy: What It Is and How It Works.
Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC)
For children with speech or language issues or those who are nonspeaking, AAC offers alternative ways to communicate, from writing in a notebook to using gestures or pressing buttons on a tablet that speaks for the child. Types of AAC generally fall under two categories:
Unaided systems: These involve your child’s own body rather than using external devices such as gestures, body language, facial expressions, and some sign vocabulary.
Aided systems: These use a tool or device. They may be basic, like a pen and paper, or high-tech, like a touch tablet or other speech-generating device. Some common programs are Proloquo2Go, TouchChat, and GoTalk.
The following are less evidence-based and more clinical experience-based AAC approaches:
Soma-Rapid Prompting Method (Soma®RPM): This method utilizes visual, auditory, or tactile prompts and responses that can include pointing to letter stencils and boards, the use of devices, handwriting, and purposeful speech. There are four main objectives: cognitive, skill, tolerance, and communication.
Facilitated Communication (FC): This involves supported or assisted typing, where a facilitator supports your child’s hand as they use their index finger to point to letters on a board or strike keys on a keyboard.
Spelling to Communicate (S2C): This approach teaches the purposeful motor skills needed to point to letters to spell. The goal is better communication between the brain and the body.
Beckman Oral Motor Approach
For children who cannot cognitively follow a therapist’s verbal instructions, this intervention provides assisted movement to activate muscle contraction. It helps build strength and control of the muscles used for speech.
Prompts for Restructuring Oral Muscular Phonetic Targets (PROMPT) is a tactile-kinesthetic approach to developing motor skill. In this therapy, an SLP uses their hands to guide your child’s jaw, lips, and tongue to form words. The SLP will choose specific words tailored to your child’s needs and the motor movements they need to practice.
Talk Tools and Oral Placement Therapy (OPT)
OPT combines auditory, visual, and tactile stimulation to address oral-motor challenges, such as difficulty with coordinated tongue movement and swallowing. Talk Tools is a type of OPT that uses tools (straws, horns, buttons) to improve muscle strength in the mouth. Because the same muscles used for feeding are used for speech, OPT can help a child improve their speech quality and fluency over time. Techniques address low muscle tone, hearing loss, chewing best practices, and more.
Speech and Hearing Therapy
While speech therapy is concerned with voice and speech-language skills, hearing therapy (also referred to as audiology) deals with hearing and hearing impairment. Speech and hearing therapies are used to help children with voice disorders, language disorders, stuttering, and aphasia. An SLP can evaluate your child’s language skills to establish an individualized treatment plan.
Auditory-Verbal Therapy (AVT)
AVT is an early intervention therapy option for infants, toddlers, and young children who use hearing aids or cochlear implants. An AV therapist will work with a child to help them listen and develop spoken language skills. AVT also helps family members learn methods to stimulate their child’s potential for hearing.
American Sign Language (ASL)
ASL is a complete visual language that uses hand and body movements as well as facial expressions to communicate. It has its own unique grammar, which is distinct from that of spoken English.
Total communication is a system that works to provide children with hearing loss with the tools to communicate and express themselves, including using gestures, body language, sign language, augmented communication devices, lip reading, and cued speech.
Vision therapy is a broad term for a therapy program that attempts to improve visual skills and abilities. It can be used to prevent or correct myopia (nearsightedness), strabismus (when both eyes do not line up in the same direction), and diplopia (double vision). It involves eye exercises used by pediatric opthamologists and orthoptists that can be taught at the doctor’s office and repeated later at home. Vision therapy may also be used to treat visual processing disorders in children with learning disabilities, dyslexia, and ADHD.
Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA)
ABA uses positive reinforcement to increase language and communication skills, attention, focus, social and daily living skills, and more. It also helps decrease problem behaviors that may be harmful to your child or others, or those that may get in the way of learning. Therapy plans are often developed and overseen by a Board-Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) in the form of discrete trial instruction (DTI) or discrete trial training (DTT), which is a repetitive way of mastering a targeted skill and is often administered one-to-one. ABA builds off a three-step “ABC” pattern: Antecedent (what comes before a behavior), the actual Behavior, and Consequence (what happens after the behavior).
There are two other ways to apply ABA therapy:
Pivotal Response Treatment (PRT) is a play-based method that targets improving “pivotal” development areas instead of individual behaviors to spark widespread progress.
The Early Start Denver Model (ESDM) is a type of ABA that can be done in individual or group sessions. Activities are play-based with multiple goals for your child to practice accomplishing more than one thing at a time.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
CBT is a psychological treatment that helps improve emotional regulation to protect against irrational fears or behaviors due to anxiety, depression, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), oppositional defiant disorder (ODD), and other diagnoses. Children with developmental delays or impairments can often suffer from anxiety and OCD.
The Developmental, Individual Differences, and Relationship-Based (DIRFloortime®) model follows your child’s lead and interests to help them climb further up the “developmental ladder”. It centers on pretend play, utilizing a continuous flow of both verbal and nonverbal communication. Floortime can be applied across environments, from home to school and the community.
Social-adaptive development can take any number of forms, from “baby and me” groups, where parents learn how to make their children feel safe, to more intensive “mini-school days” where parents, their babies, and providers engage in various play activities to develop certain skills.
Infant stimulation offers sensory enrichment as a therapeutic intervention. It’s focused on addressing both cognitive and motor developmental areas for children with suspected developmental delays or delayed milestones, or who are at high risk of delays. Infant stimulation provides supplemental sensory stimulation in some or all of the sensory areas: visual, auditory, tactile, vestibular, olfactory, and gustatory. The activities arouse or stimulate a baby’s sense of sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell. Infant stimulation has been shown to improve an infant’s curiosity, attention span, memory, and nervous system development. The therapy often requires a child development specialist trained to deliver the infant stimulation portion and a physical or occupational therapist trained in neuro-developmental therapy (NDT). Parents or other primary caregivers may be trained for the daily home implementation of the program.
Therapy centers and hospitals host social skills groups for many age brackets, from younger children well into the teen years. Programs for younger children are often based on experiential play, where they can put communication, problem solving, decision making, and peer relations into practice. These programs can be helpful for children and teens with autism or other developmental disorders that can make socializing with same-age peers a struggle.
Program for the Education and Enrichment of Relational Skills (PEERS®)
UCLA’s PEERS® is a social skills intervention for individuals with autism, ranging from preschoolers to young adults, and it can also serve those with ADHD, anxiety and/or depression. It addresses skills such as making and keeping friends, handling rejection and bullying, and even making phone calls. Parental and family involvement is a key component of the program.