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When Animals & Occupational Therapy Meet

by South University
January 11, 2019
A photo of two South University occupational therapy assistant students.

As they approach the horse, some students are hesitant and nervous. Others are thrilled—they’ve been looking forward to this day since their pediatrics class started. Part of the Associate of Applied Science in Occupational Therapy Assistant program South University, Richmond,* these students are visiting the Wings of Hope Ranch for a case study project. They’ve been given a description of a patient and now they need to determine how to meet the needs of that patient using animal-assisted therapy with horses.

For those unfamiliar with the field, occupational therapy helps patients to develop, recover, and maintain the skills needed for their daily lives, whether they’re at home, work, school, or in public spaces. To build these skills, occupational therapy assistants and therapists employ a number of tools and methods, and lately, more and more animals—including horses—are finding their way into therapy sessions.

What is Animal-Assisted Therapy?

In animal-assisted therapy, healthcare professionals use trained therapy animals to help patients engaged in occupational therapy, physical therapy, speech therapy, and other related practices. Their therapy goals remain the same, with the animal serving as a motivating or calming factor for the patient.

“You could use these horses, or the family's pet dog or a cat, or almost any animal. A nursing home I worked at years ago had a pot-bellied pig,” says Kimberly Alford, the Occupational Therapy Assistant program instructor who leads the South University students on their visit to Wings of Hope.

Recent research has shown that animal-assisted therapy can increase patient communication, language use, movement, play, and overall engagement in therapy. “Research shows especially individuals who've experienced trauma do much better when using animals in therapy,” notes Alford.

Animal-assisted therapy is also a common tool for working with children with autism spectrum disorders, Down syndrome, ADHD, cerebral palsy, and many other conditions.

Using Animal-Assisted Therapy in Occupational Therapy

The Wings of Hope Ranch outside Richmond where our students visit is home to eight rescued horses used to help a variety of children in need.

Brushing a horse can be a particularly effective means of occupational therapy, explains Alford. “If we need to increase shoulder and arm strength, reaching to the top of a horse involves a lot of repetitions of moving your arms up high, like you would in exercise. Because many patients are more motivated to brush a horse than to lift a one- or two-pound weight, we can get more repetitions with this method.”

To understand how this might help a patient, the South University students try their own hand at horse grooming. From there, they’re tasked with creating a treatment plan for the patient described in the case study. “They have to understand everything grooming the horse requires and how to teach that,” says Alford. “Things like sequencing multiple steps, bending and stooping, grasping different items, changing positions, safety awareness, attention to task, there are all of those components.”

Grooming horses can even teach and motivate children to follow personal grooming and hygiene practices. “Kids who won't allow you to fix their hair may allow it to be brushed and fixed to go into the riding helmet,” notes Alford.

Beyond grooming, the animal therapy teaches children how to interact with and build trust with the horses. By sitting on the horse, they also work on balance and their back and trunk muscles.

Many other animals are common in occupational therapy. For example, therapy dogs may be used to distract patients who are being stretched. Alternatively, therapy dogs may help motivate patients to complete activities that improve range of motion, coordination, fine motor skills, and strength. This might include a patient cutting up treats, feeding the animal, putting on a leash, or playing games with them. Tasks involving multiple steps can help patients improve cognitive functioning and memory.

Using animals for therapy can even motivate children who refuse to eat. “Kids who were fed through a tube early in life often have great difficulty eating later in life,” says Alford. “To get them to try new food, you might set it up so that if they eat their food, they're allowed to feed a bite to the dog or other therapy animal as a reward or reinforcement.

Preparing for an Occupational Therapy Career

At South University, learning about animal-assisted therapy is only one aspect of preparing to become an occupational therapy assistant. Our 2-year associate’s (AAS) degree occupational therapy assistant programs include both coursework and clinical experiences. Richmond students particularly interested in pursuing an animal-assisted therapy job may further explore that area through their fieldwork and may return to Wings of Hope for service-learning projects. However, they’ll also gain experience across settings and therapy tools.

“Animal-assisted therapy is a specialized way to use your therapy skills, but the biggest thing for us is that this experience provides another unique opportunity for our students to practice their clinical reasoning,” says Alford of her students’ time at Wings of Hope. “As a therapist, the tools you use can change a lot but that clinical reasoning remains the same.

At a pool, a therapist focuses on aquatics therapy. In the state of Virginia, occupational therapists can’t bring anything into the house with them on home visits, so they use only what’s on hand, Alford explains. “Every situation, every setting requires applying your clinical reasoning skills to use what's available to help your patient.”

To learn more about preparing for an occupational therapy career at a South University campus near you, request information or explore our Occupational Therapy programs today!

*See http://ge.southuniversity.edu/programoffering/4532 for program duration, tuition, fees and other costs, median debt, alumni success, and other important info.

by South University
January 11, 2019
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OTA Program Director Terrie Nolinske Has Made Her Career Combining Science & Creativity

by South University
November 13, 2017
An image of a healthcare professional assisting a woman.

For Terrie Nolinske, PhD, OTR/L, the South University, Tampa Chair of the College of Health Professions and Director of the Occupational Therapy Assistant program, the mix of applying scientific knowledge with creative problem-solving is what first drew her to the occupational therapy profession.

"Occupational therapy requires an extensive knowledge of anatomy, physiology, and medical conditions, but also requires the therapist to be very creative in engaging the client in the OT process," she explains.

Expertise & Experience in Occupational Therapy

As an occupational therapist, Nolinske has 40+ years of experience in evaluation and rehabilitation for burns, cancer, orthopedics, arthritis and neurology with individuals of all ages. She has worked with patients in their homes, community centers, hospitals, mental health centers, rehabilitation centers, schools, and communities for independent living, assisted living, and memory care.

"I enjoy the challenge of quickly assessing the strengths and limitations of new clients, finding out what’s important to them, and working with them to establish a unique plan of care and timeline for achieving treatment goals," she says. "Coming up with activities that are meaningful to the individual and that will keep them engaged and successful at each step and every session, that is where the creativity comes in."

Administratively, she has served as the Director of Occupational Therapy in a 450-bed hospital in Chicago as well as Chair of the Physical Disabilities Special Interest Section for the Americation Occupational Therapy Association, a role in which she developed educational procedures and a research symposium for thousands of therapists nationwide.

Educating Students, Peers, Patients, and the Public

Nolinske has long been an educator, from supervisory positions guiding the development of occupational therapists, to teaching patients how to achieve independence in daily tasks, to supervising students in the classroom and on externships.

Her first university position came in 1978 at Northwestern University Medical School’s Prosthetics-Orthotics Center. As an Associate and Assistant Director, in addition to teaching lectures and labs, she created orthotics course manuals and instituted the use of case studies and problem-based learning across courses. Since then, Nolinske has taught at numerous universities, even spending a semester teaching in Poland in 2002. In 2012, she joined South University, Tampa and founded our Occupational Therapy Assistant program.

Her educational experience outside the classroom is no less extensive, including working in textbook publishing and serving as editor for a national occupational therapy newsletter with a weekly circulation of 60,000. As an occupational therapy expert, she has led large organizations like the Lincoln Park Zoo and Tampa’s Museum of Science and Industry in creating entirely new experiences for people with disabilities , ensuring that everyone has an opportunity to learn, engage, and interact with their surroundings.

She has also written over 150 articles for magazines, technical publications, peer-reviewed journals, and newspapers and has been elected into the prestigious National Association of Science Writers.

Nolinske's Teaching Philosophy

As an educator, Nolinske is committed to incorporating activities for all learning styles. In her classes, she uses lectures, discussions on current events in healthcare, individual and group work, demonstrations, hands-on activities, presentations, case studies, and role playing. She encourages everyone to participate and openly discuss their differing viewpoints. Doing so, she believes, will help to develop the communication, creativity, and problem-solving abilities of her students—skills that are essential for working in occupational therapy.

"I want all students to feel welcome and to always be connecting what they learn to their past knowledge and personal experiences. I also aim to instill curiosity, so that my students are questioning what they learn and asking why something works (or doesn’t)," she says. "I take great joy in seeing my students do things like considering context, embracing diversity, challenging assumptions, and exploring alternative possibilities."

Explore our Occupational Therapy Assistant program today, or learn more about how you can change lives by working in occupational therapy.

See suprograms.info for program duration, tuition, fees and other costs, median debt, alumni success, and other important info.

by South University
November 13, 2017
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Occupational Therapy Careers: Changing Lives and Communities

by South University
October 31, 2017
An image of a healthcare professional assisting a woman.

From working with individual patients to making public spaces more accessible to all, occupational therapy professionals have a profound opportunity to change lives. Within this field, both occupational therapists and occupational therapy assistants play critical roles in helping people recover and cope with illness and injury, as well as regain and maintain functional independence in their day-to-day tasks.

"The occupational therapy field attracts compassionate, caring professionals who will go to the mat to be the advocate for their clients. We're very caring people. That is the core of what we do," says Terrie Nolinske, the Director of the Occupational Therapy Assistant program at South University, Tampa.

The Power of One-on-One Occupational Therapy

Occupational therapy professionals work with patients to assess their strengths and needs before developing diverse treatment plans unique to each individual. From there, they monitor and work with patients to help them achieve their goals, documenting progress as it occurs. Occupational therapy can involve working with patients across the lifespan and include:

  • Helping children with disabilities lead a more fulfilling life
  • Providing recovery plan and treatment regimens for adults
  • Assisting older adults with physical and cognitive changes
  • Recommending adaptive equipment and instruct patients on its use
  • Performing patient evaluations and ongoing patient care

Occupational therapy professionals may work in a wide variety of settings, including hospitals, a patient’s home, mental health centers, rehabilitation centers, community centers, schools, and continuum of care communities offering independent living, assisted living, and memory care. Occupational therapy assistants operate under the supervision of licensed occupational therapists, and both therapists and their assistants may collaborate frequently with other care providers, such as psychologists, social workers, physicians, and speech pathologists.

Occupational Therapy Expertise Applied on a Bigger Scale

Those who study occupational therapy and understand the needs of individuals with disabilities, injuries, or illnesses can also apply their knowledge to improve the accessibility of everyday spaces. For example, occupational therapists may collaborate with employers to create work environments that accommodates their employees’ needs. Other occupational therapists may provide support in designing parks, shopping centers, and other public areas to ensure that everyone can equally experience and enjoy these destinations.

Nolinske, for example, has applied her occupational therapy knowledge to support both the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago and the Tampa Museum of Science and Industry.

At the Lincoln Park Zoo, she spearheaded a Universal Access Initiative which included developing new hands-on programs for zoo visitors with special needs, introducing additional tactile elements across exhibits, and writing staff guidelines on how to assist people with disabilities. Through this project, she led the zoo to win a national accessibility award.

In 2004, at the Tampa's Museum of Science & Industry, she led the creation of a 13,700-sq. foot interactive exhibit, The Amazing You, which explored key stages in the journey through life, including developmental milestones as well as common health issues and their treatment.

For Nolinkse, the project tapped into everything she’d done, learned, and experienced throughout her career. Designed to be accessible to all ages and abilities, all visitors left with a better understanding of human development, from birth to death.

"The end of life area of the exhibition prompted visitors to talk about what they would do 'if.' What would they put into a living will or durable power of attorney for healthcare? Would they seek treatment or not if the cure was worse than the disease?" Nolinske explains. "It was an incredibly powerful exhibit."

Prepare for Your Career in Occupational Therapy

If you're interested in preparing for a career in the occupational therapy field, explore our Occupational Therapy programs online or contact us today at 1.888.444.3404.

See suprograms.info for program duration, tuition, fees and other costs, median debt, alumni success, and other important info.

by South University
October 31, 2017
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