This might seem like a strange question at first, but is an important one to consider.
As a parent, you might hear the word used by your primary doctor or other healthcare professionals, by teachers, by coworkers, or by family and friends. These people may suggest that your child needs a particular type of therapy to help them do or learn certain things. Sometimes these people might also share stories about how therapy changed their lives or the lives of their children.
But what is therapy?
If you're not sure what the answer to that question is, it makes it harder for you as a parent to identify what it looks like, how it works to help your child, and when the therapy your child is receiving is what's appropriate for their needs. This also makes it harder for you to be a part of the process that helps your child get to the place you would like to see them in.
So, what is therapy?
Therapy is a process that changes your child's brain and the way it works. This is what all therapy does, no matter what name it's called. It involves the time that your child spends with a professional but depends on what happens outside of that time for it to be effective.
The time that your child spends with their therapy provider is only a small part of what creates the changes that you see in them, and the reason for that is based on the way the brain works:
- Our brains have billions of cells, called neurons, that send information through the pathways formed when those neurons connect to each other.
- These pathways are responsible for making sure that processes such as breathing, sleeping, eating, moving, and staying healthy work in our bodies they way they are supposed to.
- These pathways are also responsible for collecting information from the outside world and sending it to the parts of our brains that will process the information.
- Those parts of our brains then come up with the appropriate response and also use pathways to send the information needed for our bodies to demonstrate that response to the outside world.
Now, imagine you're waiting for important documents in the mail and the mail truck carrying those letters is coming to you from the other side of town. The truck gets on the road and makes the drive over, then you are able to receive your documents and respond to the information. You may need to send other documents back to the original sender, and they may also need to send more documents back to you. In a similar way, our brains are constantly receiving and sending information through the pathways that are created by the information we get from the environments we are in and the experiences we have in those environments.
When we think about the example of the mail truck, we can see that there are many parts to the process of receiving the important documents. We need the mail truck to contain and move the documents, we need roads to connect the post office to your home, and we need you to open the envelope so that you can get the information. There are many things that can affect this process; for example, the truck has to get on the road in order to make it to your home, which will take some time. If the road conditions make it hard for the truck to complete the trip then there will be a delay in getting the documents you are waiting for. If there are no roads connecting the post office to your home, the truck will not be able to get to you and neither will the important documents you are waiting for.
In the same way, our neurons can only send the information that they receive from the outside world to the parts of our brain that need to receive it when they form pathways. The stronger those pathways are, the more quickly our neurons send the information back and forth, and the more quickly our entire brain works to process the information, then to respond automatically. Since our brain pathways are responsible for the way we respond to the outside world and the skills we demonstrate, we can recognize that if someone doesn't demonstrate a particular skill or response it means that they don't yet have a pathway for that skill, the pathway is not strong enough for them to respond automatically, or the pathway is not sending enough information for them to be able to respond to the outside world as needed.
When a child is not demonstrating a skill that they need for success and independence in their natural environment, therapy helps to identify the reason why that skill is not yet present and to plan activities that will help them to use it when they need to.
If we use the previous example, let's imagine that the mail truck is on its way from the post office but gets stuck because a tree has fallen on the road and then someone removes the tree so that the truck can continue on its way. The tree on the road prevents the truck from delivering the documents, and the person who removes the tree provides intervention that helps the truck to get to where it needs to go. With therapy, your provider's intervention is a process. This process involves actions that help to create the brain pathways needed for your child's skills, and help to strengthen the brain pathways for skills that are already present. This means adding to and building on your child's experiences and the environments they are in on a regular basis.
Your child's brain pathways are created and strengthened when they are used over and over again. This allows them to demonstrate the skills that those pathways support independently and consistently. This means that the time that they spend with their therapy provider is important for introducing them to activities that will help to create and strengthen the pathways they need, but the time they spend doing those activities outside of therapy sessions is what helps them to use the skills they they need in real life.
What then, is therapy?
It's a process that involves changing your child's brain and the way it works by changing their experiences and the environments they are in.
You are the most important part of your child's therapy journey because you spend the most time with them, are a part of the experiences they have every day, and are in their natural environment every day.
You are in the best position to change their daily experiences and the environments they are in and to give them the opportunities they need to do what helps to create and strengthen their brain pathways.
When you know what to do, how to do it, and why it helps, you get to make an impact on how quickly they grow, change, and master the skills they need for success.