My son’s doctor once asked me which therapist I’d found most useful. There were a lot to choose from – my son has had speech therapy, occupational therapy, an educational psychologist, music therapy, ABA therapy, physiotherapy, and a few other bits and bobs along the way. I answered quickly and quite confidently at the time: Occupational therapy. But as I tried to explain why it had been so useful, I found myself tripping over my explanation, and being unable to pin down exactly what about it had been so great.
On later reflection I figured out why I had been so fond of occupational therapy. It wasn’t just about the therapy itself (which often comes across as a lot of nonsense), it was the therapist. She had been the first therapist to engage with my son, after months of waiting between the confirmed diagnosis and the Ministry Of Health finally having people free to take up his case. I was so relieved at the time to have someone – anyone – come along and help me figure out how to cope with my son. She was also a very friendly and patient person, who genuinely cared about both my son, and myself. She helped me accept that for my son’s well-being, I had to be cared for too – that having a therapist turn up once a week for one hour to give guidance on my son, is useless unless his primary caregiver was mentally and physically well enough to use what had been taught.
This level of care and concern showed itself on many occasions. One of the first was when she came to our home for a therapy session with the speech therapist (they tag-teamed a lot), and my son was being particularly difficult, as he had been all the time of late. I was exhausted and depressed, in desperate need of a break from the tantrums, and no one in my life with both the desire and skills to take him off my hands for even an hour. I ended up in tears part way through the session, as he continually tried to hit my mouth and would scream whenever I tried to talk to them. The occupational therapist told me to go to my bedroom, take a break there and then, and that they would look after my son for the rest of the hour. I was reluctant to do so since it’s not their job to babysit my kid, it was meant to be a teaching session as always. But she insisted and I gave in, and took the breather I desperately needed while they kept him amused. It was above and beyond her call of duty.
I learnt after that incident to let my walls down around her. I tried very hard not to cry in front of people about my son – I always did my best to hold it together, scared that if people saw how hard it was for me that they’d either think I was incompetent (a perception that I’d suffered from earlier – see Theory One), or even worse – they’d take my son away from me. But because of the occupational therapist’s compassion and understanding, I often ended up in honest tears around her, and she always took it in her stride.
Yes there was value in the work she did with my son, and in the methods and skills she taught me to use with him, but her real value to us was herself as a person. If she’d have taught a different therapy, or if she’d had no training at all, I’d have still thought of her as one of the most valuable people in our lives at the time. It’s like my son’s educational support worker who goes to kindergarten with him five days a week – she has no specific tertiary qualification for dealing with the special needs children she works with, but she has the intelligence, patience and caring that makes me trust her with our son, and allows me to be completely honest with her each time we catch up. The support worker has to be able to implement whatever other therapies are going on in his life at the time. Similarly my son’s occupational therapist had the intelligence and interest in implementing the other therapies used with him – sometimes to better effect than the actual therapist who’s job it was.
It’s an issue that’s come up a lot in the news lately – as to whether qualifications are necessary for early childhood teachers. My experiences (more of which I shall share in future posts) have taught me that it’s the person who always matters more than the qualification – the right person is harder to find than the right degree.