Who does what and why would I need them?
Every single child has a unique pattern of strengths and challenges that exist across emotional, mental, and physical domains. Sometimes, these specific sets of strengths and challenges can result in a child receiving certain diagnoses.
Diagnoses, as you probably know, often get a bad reputation for “labeling” children; but this is not the intention of a diagnosis. Ideally, a diagnosis will assist a child and their families in receiving the most appropriate professional services and support.
For example, if a child with Spina Bifida never received a diagnosis, his medical care teams would not be able to communicate effectively about the ongoing concerns and plan for his treatment. The same is true for diagnoses related to mental and emotional health, learning differences, eating and feeding disorders, etc… developmental delays, neurological disorders, genetic conditions, and on and on. Diagnoses help us understand common concerns so that we can better treat the unique individual in front of us.
But receiving a diagnosis does not magically create a care team out of thin air. Parents can easily feel overwhelmed by the professional care options that are available. For a diagnosis like autism, for example, it may take months for a family to identify the best set of specific services for their child. And then as a child grows, his or her needs may shift, and so will the care team.
Budgeting for different professional services is also a major concern for many families who want to utilize their resources most effectively while finding help for their child.
Parents may struggle to choose the “perfect” set of interventions to help their child and family maintain balance.
Which service do we start with?
What is the most important?
What do some of these services even mean?
While no one person can answer those questions for your own family, maybe we can help you better understand what some of these services are.
The following list offers a brief overview of some of the more common professional services that may be recommended for families of children who need some extra support.
This is your child’s primary physician, who is often the first professional you contact. Your pediatrician should be able to point you toward someone who can provide professional assessments for diagnostic purposes.
Often, pediatricians are the referral sources for other professional services. Choose someone who can know and understand your family as your child grows!
Physical Therapists (PT)
Physical therapists are movement experts who improve the quality of life through prescribed exercise, hands-on care, and patient education (apta.org).
Physical therapists can be used for temporary or long-term care in helping a person improve their movement and decrease bodily pain. Physical therapy is often used for rehabilitation purposes but is also helpful for children with certain developmental delays or who struggle with aspects of physical health.
Learn more about PTs here
Occupational Therapists (OT)
“Occupational therapy enables people of all ages to participate in daily living” (aota.org).
Occupational therapists work with children and adults to better operate within their regular environments. This is a field with so many specific focuses. I find the video below to be incredibly helpful in providing an overview.
Occupational therapists and physical therapists differ in that physical therapists help patients with the mechanics of body movement, whereas occupational therapists help patients perform certain daily activities and skills. The two can go hand in hand, but are not the same type of therapy.
What Can Occupational Therapy Do For You?
Speech-Language Pathologist (SLP)
Speech-Language Pathologists treat many types of communication and swallowing problems (asha.org). An SLP can help a child (or adult) speak clearly and more confidently. They also work on the mechanics of feeding in patients who struggle with the physical ability to chew and swallow food.
Learn more about SLPs here
Registered Dietitians (RD) or (RDN)
A registered dietitian (RD) or (RDN), is medically trained in helping individuals and families with feeding and nutritional care. Diagnoses such as autism, diabetes, sensory processing disorder, eating and feeding disorders, and many others often require a need for this type of support. An RDN focuses on your child’s specific nutritional needs. While an SLP may help someone with the mechanics of eating, an RDN will help with what is being eaten.
Learn more about what RDNs can treat in children here
A psychiatrist is a medical doctor (MD) who specialized in the branch of medicine concerned with the study, diagnosis, and treatment of mental illness (APA).
Usually, psychiatrists do not provide the bulk of talk therapy, though they are qualified to do so. They prescribe medications to support clients and do not typically see clients as frequently as the primary talk therapist. Many family care teams utilize a psychiatrist alongside a professional counselor. In this scenario, a psychiatrist will generally check in every 3 months or so to maintain medication, and a talk or play therapist will meet weekly with the client to work on mental and emotional health.
Psychologists undergo 6-8 years of post-graduate mental health education and hold a non-medical doctoral degree. Psychologists are specifically trained in administering assessments that help clients and their families better understand the client’s strengths and weaknesses and overall way of operating. It is often a psychologist who formerly diagnoses a child who is seeking services for mental and emotional health, behavioral concerns, or for learning differences. Psychologists are also skilled in seeing clients in a professional counseling setting and can provide traditional talk therapy.
Psychologists differ from psychiatrists in that they are not trained as medical doctors and cannot prescribe medication.
Note: Some professional counselors, specifically those who have obtained doctoral training, are also able to provide and discern assessments. Psychologists, however, are all trained in this area and can also offer projective tests that other licenses cannot.
Learn more about the process of becoming a licensed psychologist here
A Licensed Specialist in School Psychology (LSSP) can perform testing and mental health services in the school setting. These individuals help students determine if they are eligible for special education services or classroom interventions.
Learn more about LSSP and school psychologists in the state of Texas here
Professional Counselors According to the American Counseling Association, Professional counseling is a professional
relationship that empowers diverse individuals, families, and groups to accomplish mental health, wellness, education, and career goals (ACA).
For children, professional counselors utilize play therapy to connect with children using the language in which they are most fluent: play.
Counselors can have various licenses, as well as a variety of different niches of care.
However, just because someone is licensed in counseling does not mean that the person is professionally trained in every specific type of counseling, such as play therapy, family therapy, substance use or eating disorders treatment, etc. If you are seeking a professional with a certain focus, make sure to ask specific questions about the counselor’s methods and philosophy of treatment.
Counselors working with children should have experience and training in play therapy.
Learn more about professional counseling here
In the state of Texas there are several professional licenses that see clients for professional counseling:
Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC)
Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT)
Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW)
An LCSW is a social worker who pursued licensure to be able to see clients in a counseling setting. Not all social workers are professional counselors. An LMSW (Licensed Master Social Worker) does not have license to independently practice counseling.
A professional counselor (see above) (who is specifically trained in working with the family system. Sometimes a family is referred to family therapy alongside individual or play therapy.
Behavioral therapists work strictly with the goal of modifying specific behaviors in a child or adult. Professional counselors can utilize behavioral methods, but many prefer other modes of counseling.
Some behavioral therapy certifications, such as Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), require a person to be certified in the specific modality but not in professional counseling as a whole. These individuals work to alter specific behaviors that a child may present. It is a modality requiring consistency and practice with the child and/or family unit.
Schools often use Behavior Intervention Specialists as well. These individuals, like ABA professionals, are trained in a specific modality of behavior modification and are not professional counselors. Their work is highly focused on changing the way a person behaves or responds to stimuli.