Interview Barbara Smith, OT Career, Therapy Materials You Can Make and Her Books

Interview Barbara Smith, OT Career, Therapy Materials You Can Make and Her Books

Everyone knows about the limited teaching and healthcare budgets making the procurement of therapy products and special needs teaching supplies most difficult to obtain. Author Barbara Smith, M.S., OTR  has a great solution, make homemade therapy tools by following the detailed instructions in her book, The Recycling Occupational Therapist: Hundreds of Simple Therapy Materials You Can Make. This resource book for parents and professionals was done with care and took a lot of planning. Barbara Smith’s attention to detail and her creativity shines through on each page. Read my review of her book here. Our Author Interview Series climbs up another notch with this wonderful interview with Barbara Smith, OTR. We thank her for the wonderful photos she sent along also.

Lorna: Welcome to our Special Needs Book Review site, Barbara. In your book I found that you worked for over 25 years in a variety of settings including residences, public schools, special education collaboratives, early intervention programs, state schools and hippotherapy facilities. It’s an amazing career!

 Looking back which area of work did you like best?

Barbara Smith >> I discovered my affinity for working with developmentally disabled adults before having ever heard of occupational therapy. Human services were going through a transformation in the 1970’s as higher functioning adults were moved out of institutions and parents began receiving early intervention and special education supports so that they could raise their kids at home. My first job as an occupational therapist was working in an early intervention program where the children had complex needs. It was not the best setting for an inexperienced therapist. But now that I have many years of learning under my belt I am very happy working with very young children again at a hippotherapy facility.  There isn’t a lot of research on the efficacy of hippotherapy, but I see such incredible improvements and I love being able to walk all day long and be around animals. Working at Ironstone Therapies in Andover, MA  has been the most enjoyable job to date.

Lorna: What are you concentrating on now?

 Barbara Smith >> I only work one day a week doing clinical work in hippotherapy. However, I work full time in planning and giving seminars to both professionals and parents, marketing/selling my books and writing articles. I am also working on a new book about the power of movement in helping children with autism-while on and off the horse.

Lorna: When and how did the idea to write a book come about? You have also written From Rattles to Writing: A Parent’s Guide to Hand Skills. Tell us about this book.

 Barbara Smith >> The first thing I noticed when working at Hogan Regional Center- a state institution for developmentally disabled adults was that many of the residents and staff seemed bored. They had been using the same activities and working on the same objectives for many years. The residents needed meaningful activities, individualized to meet their cognitive level while also meeting their sensory needs and providing just enough challenge to be interesting and develop new skills. I started adapting activities with music, vibration, scents and stimulating textures. I made materials heavier with sand bags so that they had to use both hands to manipulate while also receiving sensory stimulating to muscles and joints. I realized that I needed to share these ideas with others and fortunately my first publisher of The Recycling Occupational Therapist agreed.

While working in the public schools I observed that many preschooler and kindergarten children were referred for occupational therapy because they had difficulties with fine motor skills due to lack of early experiences. I recommend activities in my reports that developed sensory awareness, strength and coordination and the parent’s often said “I never thought of that!”

I examined the child development books currently on the market. They addressed specific deficits such as sensory processing disorders, were focused on global development (i.e. Dr. Spock), were highly technical or packed with crafts and games without reference to developing fine-motor skills. I saw a niche to fill for parents, teachers and others interested in how to provide the early (and I mean early, starting at birth!) sensory and visual-motor experiences that lead to learning specifically reading and writing. One theme that runs through From Rattles to Writing: A Parent’s Guide to Hand Skills is that what babies visually observe is very important before they even begin to reach and grasp, then the 3 dimensional objects that  they manipulate are very important in preparing them to understand the spatial relationships between the circles and lines that form shapes, letters and numbers. I wrote this book to help all parents understand development and how to promote it, but many of the adaptations I designed make learning especially easier for children with learning challenges. Read our review of  From Rattles to Writing here.

 Lorna: I saw a YouTube video of you showing therapy materials you can make and explaining the activities a caregiver could do with it. Have you produced many videos? How do parents find them?

 Barbara Smith >> I made my first video in 2008 to show how easy and fast it is to make some of the activities in The Recycling Occupational Therapist.  The filming is not professional but I think it gets across the point that readers don’t have to fear spending hours and hours to make these activities. It actually saves time to use materials that we all have around the house instead of traveling to stores or ordering on line and then realizing that the product didn’t work as expected in the first place. I subsequently made several videos that demonstrate how to make specific activities and what skills they helped develop.

I also made videos related to designing activities that help individuals with Alzheimer disease and videos that show snippets of my presentations in nursing homes and other settings. This was during the time my mother had the disease and I wrote- Still Giving Kisses: A Guide to Helping and Enjoying the Alzheimer’s Victim you Love. I wanted to share how important it is to engage in meaningful activities with loved ones as they regressed through the stages.  I think that my previous experience designing activities for children and adults with developmental disabilities greatly benefited my own mother!

This link on my website’s homepage shows many of the videos.

Viewers can also click on the icon on my “The Recycling Occupational Therapist” Facebook page. Once on any of my YouTube pages, a viewer can click on my “channel” to see all of my videos, but I warn you that you may end up seeing my sister-in-law’s wedding and the wild pigs in Florida.

  Lorna: We hear a lot about Therapy dogs and hippotherapy. Please explain to parents how you feel about this line of help for their child with special needs.

 Barbara Smith >> I think that animal-assisted therapies can be extremely beneficial. It’s amazing to think about how the many different types of animals around the world such as the dolphins in Florida, elephants in Thailand and camels in the Middle East have been used for therapeutic purposes. The bottom line is that animals provide sensory stimulation and unconditional acceptance. Children with autism seem to especially like animal friends because they don’t demand conversation!

Programs using dogs and horses are rapidly growing as-well as research that studies their impact on communication, sensory, motor skills and social/emotional health. I don’t have experience with therapy dogs but from my reading and watching videos, I can say that they can motivate children to communicate, the deep pressure/hugging or holding of a dog provides calming sensory input and the child with special needs walking down the street holding a leash gets positive attention.

Horses have motivated my hippotherapy clients to say “go”, “whoa” and ‘I rode Charmer today!”.  I have written many articles about and am working on a book about the benefits of hippotherapy. So all I will say here is that a horse is a therapy tool unlike no other in terms of providing sensory stimulation and an emotional bond that promotes engagement. In addition, the pelvic movement the horse transmits to the  rider is so similar to the human gait that it helps improve the rider’s ambulation skills, as well as balance, postural control and coordination. In other words, hippotherapy enables children with cerebral palsy and other neuromuscular disorders to experience normal movement!

 Lorna: In your book, one thing that is important for caregivers is that for many of the activities you point out social skills that can also be improved upon while playing an activity designed for another skill like one for gross motor development. Please elaborate how the activities you chose can serve for more than one skill and also can be adapted for various individuals with different abilities.

Barbara Smith >> Children and adults with severe multiple disabilities are often sensory defensive. This means that they might be averse to certain smells, touch (especially light touch), tastes, sounds and are easily over-stimulated. As a result it takes a long time for them to accept new people and build relationships. Sharing materials during activities is one way to create a connection without having to touch or even look at other people and this might be the starting point in developing sensorimotor and social skills instead of engaging in self-stimulatory  behaviors.

In The Recycling Occupational Therapist I explain how to design therapeutic activities by first using skills that are already in the child’s repertoire. Let’s take for example, the “bilateral-handled batter”. This is made by connecting 2 soda bottles using the spouts as handles. (it looks like a football with handles). A child who is at a level where she grasps with only one hand can now be encouraged to grasp with both hands at the same time. Using it to swat a suspended ball builds on this skill by requiring her to visually attend and coordinate movements. Two children can sit opposite each other swatting at the suspended ball-now we have integrated a social interaction. A more involved child might be taught use the batter to push a ball in order to knock over boxes stacked on the table. Then a higher functioning child can retrieve the ball and stack the boxes again. Both children learn about turn taking and team work.

Lorna: All young children at home, in early intervention programs, and in preschool programs can benefit from the activities in your book to develop fine and gross motor skills. Parents must not think your book is only for individuals with special needs. What suggestions do you have for parents of young children who want to use your book?

 Barbara Smith >> One reason I wrote From Rattles to Writing: A Parent’s guide to Hand Skills is that parents need to understand typical development so that they recognize red flags and then get the early intervention their children need. Although I use parent friendly language I also teach them about the child development lingo such as the term “pincer grasp” so that 1) they can say-“wow, my child is developing a pincer while picking up Cheerios” and 2) understand the teacher’s concern if their 3 year old is not using a pincer grasp.

Fortunately, most children do not have problems, but isn’t it great when a parent can offer every opportunity for their child to develop hand skills as best to their ability at every age and stage? For example, simple adaptations such as using large donut shapes to string on cord before the child has the dexterity to string beads

  • teaches the child how to stabilize with one hand while manipulating with the other
  • develops eye hand coordination to insert cord through holes; and
  • teaches cognitive/language concepts- “in”, “out” and “through”

I have seen many two year olds learn how to do this, including children with Down Syndrome and their parents are amazed when I tell them that their kids can string!

 Lorna: The teaching job I started off doing was not at all the teaching job I had when I retired 30 years afterwards because of the different teaching approaches and needs of students. Is this the case with occupational therapists? Have their roles changed with the growing number of children eligible for their services? Do most pediatric OT’s specialize in one area of care or are they expected to be able to help in many areas?

Barbara Smith >> These are thought provoking questions!  School service delivery has shifted from the pull-out model to focus on inclusion-providing the therapy in the classroom at the time the relevant skills are being worked on. For example, the OT might lead a preschool arts and crafts lesson or help a fifth grader use assistive technology to write a report while in the classroom. The Individual Educational Plans (IEP’s) focus on areas of need that might involve staff from several different disciplines. For example, an OT, special education teacher and speech and language therapist might all be involved with creating a high school life skills program that teaches meal preparation, shopping and money usage skills.

I think that some occupational therapists, including myself find their niche and area of expertise. Some specialize in feeding issues, sensory processing disorders or handwriting. A school- based OT needs to be a jack of all trades and address all of these areas but OT’s can work in clinical, home-based and even hippotherapy settings where they specialize.

Lorna: What is on Barbara Smith’s To-Do list for the coming months? Thank you so much for taking the time to answer my questions. We are fortunate to be able to add an interview with such a versatile OT as Barbara Smith to our series!

Barbara Smith >> My To-Do list includes ongoing interviews, writing articles and giving seminars. As I mentioned, I am working on a new book.

We are updating this post, Nov. 24, 2016

Follow Barbara A. Smith, MS, OTR/L, The RecyclingOT:

READ Also: 

From Flapping to Function: A Parent’s Guide to Autism and Hand Skills by Barbara A. Smith, MS, OTR/LBuy Books by Barbara A. Smith, MS, OTR/L

  • From Flapping to Function: A Parent’s Guide to Autism and Hand Skills
  • The Recycling Occupational Therapist: Hundreds of Simple Therapy Materials You Can Make :


This post was written by Lorna
Lorna d’Entremont: Co-owner of SentioLife Solutions, Ltd. the company behind KidCompanions Chewelry (2007) and SentioCHEWS (2013), mother of three, grandma of 5 and wife. She is a retired teacher and special needs advocate. Throughout she has taught all levels from grade 2 to grade 9. Lorna loved teaching and enjoyed seeing the students progress in the school system. During her 30 year career she took a few years off to raise her three children.