Occupational Therapy For ADHD: Can It Help?
Jan 10, 2024, 10 min read
There are many interventions and therapy options to be explored when looking at ways to improve symptoms in those with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and occupational therapy is showing great promise in this area.
At Augmentive, we aim to provide holistic, tailored mental health support to everyone so they can live their life to the fullest, so if you have questions about ADHD or occupational therapy, we can help.
If you are curious about the growing research on the benefits of this type of therapy for those living with ADHD, we are covering what occupational therapy is and what it does, how it could benefit you or a loved one living with ADHD, how you might be able to access this treatment option, and how to find the best ADHD or occupational therapist for you.
What is ADHD and what are the symptoms?
The main symptoms that ADHD causes in adults include things like trouble focusing for long periods of time, impulsivity and inattentiveness. These symptoms can interrupt everyday functions like learning, studying, working, organising, remembering, following through on instructions, managing time, and more.
In children with ADHD, symptoms can look a little different. This might include things like hyperactive behaviours, struggling to play quietly, or having difficulty following simple instructions without becoming distracted. Keep in mind that ADHD can present differently in girls than in boys, as girls tend to display less hyperactive and more inattentive symptoms.
What is occupational therapy?
The word ‘occupation’ refers to anything to do with someone’s employment, job or profession, but in the context of occupational therapy, it refers to therapy that is designed to help people function well in daily life, whether this is for their job, hobby, or just to manage life more effectively.
You might have heard of physical therapy (or physiotherapy) in the past, which is focused on helping improve a person’s mobility and movement using specific exercises, stretches and activities to strengthen their muscles. For example, you might see a physical therapist if you have recently had surgery to increase your range of motion, or if you have sustained an injury that is now limiting your movement and causing pain.
Occupational therapy, on the other hand, is focused on helping a person manage everyday tasks (relating to their particular lifestyle) with more ease, by improving their fine and gross motor skills, and optimising their environment to simplify daily tasks.
An occupational therapist will work with children, young people and older individuals, as well as those with physical disabilities, long-term limiting conditions, learning disabilities, mental health conditions, and more.
They may help someone to do things like learn how to perform necessary daily tasks, make sure their living environment is safe and manageable, show them ways to achieve their daily goals with ease, help them return to work in a sustainable, healthy way, and share techniques for managing stress.
Their goal is ultimately to help people feel safe performing everyday tasks and to ensure they are being performed effectively, while promoting independence.
Does occupational therapy work for ADHD?
Occupational therapy can be effective for those with ADHD, and the World Health Organization (WHO) has improved their focus on rehabilitation through occupational therapy in recent years. At its core, occupational therapy helps individuals (regardless of their condition) to think about activities in a different way in order to make them more manageable. To achieve this, an occupational therapist might consider an activity that their patient is struggling with and figure out an alternative way for them to reach their goal.
In those with a physical limitation who, for example, may struggle to open food packaging, this could look like finding an easier way to cook dinner by sourcing pieces of equipment that could help, or changing to more accessible types of food. In those with ADHD who may struggle with things like time management, this could look like improving their understanding of the timing of certain everyday tasks, and learning to fit these into their day in a more sustainable way.
The Royal College of Occupational Therapists states that occupational therapy helps people by creating: “a plan of goals and adjustments targeted at achieving a specific set of activities. The plan is practical, realistic and personal to you as an individual, to help you achieve the breakthroughs you need to elevate your everyday life.”
With this in mind, those with ADHD can certainly benefit from occupational therapy as it can find solutions to typical problems faced in all areas of life, from career, to school, to family and home life, to finances, and much more. At Augmentive, we believe treatment for ADHD should aim to be as bespoke as possible to support the unique needs of each person with the condition.
Since occupational therapy focuses on the skills each individual person requires in order to function independently, it has proven to be an excellent fit for those with ADHD as it offers a highly individualised approach that can help them manage any areas they find difficult, rather than a one-size-fits-all solution.
In children with ADHD-related behavioural symptoms, many studies have suggested the effectiveness of occupational therapy in addressing skills related to sensory processing, fine motor function, and participation in school. Also, in adult women with ADHD, one study which focused on establishing routines, organisation skills, time management, stress management, and sensory regulation found that tailored, occupation-based interventions helped to reduce perceived stress and ADHD symptoms. They also enhanced perceived performance of daily roles and activities.
It is clear that mounting evidence suggests occupational therapy can have many positive effects on those with ADHD, helping them not only to manage their symptoms in daily life, but to thrive in achieving daily and larger goals.
How does occupational therapy work for ADHD?
There are a number of ways occupational therapy has been shown to help those with ADHD manage their symptoms. For example:
Executive Function Skills
Executive function skills are the cognitive processes that enable individuals to plan, manage and regulate behaviour in order to achieve their goals. This is a combination of skills such as working memory, problem-solving, prioritising and self-control, all of which involve understanding how to focus your attention or shift attention – many people with ADHD struggle with these things on a daily basis.
Studies have shown occupational therapy can be useful in helping to build executive function skills in children, which can help set them up for success in adult life. For example, a 2017 study found that an intervention – involving visual cues and repetition – that targeted executive function in students with ADHD helped improve skills in this area after just 12 sessions. Another study in 2020 found that children taking part in an occupational therapy intervention involving horse riding also experienced improved executive functioning, so there are many tools an occupational therapist may use to improve this in those with ADHD.
Organisation is one of the key areas that people with ADHD struggle with, and this can affect everything from their achievements and learning in school, to paying their monthly bills as an adult. ADHD can impact your ability to keep up with information, understand what resources you need to undertake a project, break big tasks down into smaller steps, and more.
Occupational therapy can help by analysing the activities that those with ADHD most struggle with on a daily basis, pertaining specifically to their own life circumstances, and suggest adaptations to their environment, tools and mindset. For example, if someone’s financial situation is being impacted by their lack of ability to pay bills on time and stay organised with their finances, an occupational therapist could suggest steps such as:
- Breaking down larger, seemingly unmanageable tasks into bite-sized mini-tasks
- Making their finances more accessible and visible to them
- Setting reminders to stay on top of things
- Creating interruptions to stop impulse spending habits
Ultimately the more personalised the intervention is to suit the needs of each person, the more effective it will be. Assistance in the area of organisational skills has immediate benefits in the practical aspects of a person’s life, but a 2020 study even showed that during a 7-week occupational therapy intervention that focused partly on routines, women with ADHD experienced lower stress levels and fewer symptoms.
Time Management Skills
Similarly to organisation struggles, a person with ADHD may also find time management hard due to an inability to understand the closeness of pending deadlines, how to prioritise tasks, how long certain tasks will take, and more. This can impact everything from finishing school or work projects within the required timeframe, or keeping up with daily routines.
Occupational therapy is thought to help improve time management skills in those with ADHD, with one study finding that occupational therapy interventions in students aged 9-15 helped to significantly increase their awareness of time, and therefore manage tasks more effectively.
Often, for those with ADHD, managing symptoms every day can be a stressful experience, and learning how to manage stress, ADHD paralysis, overwhelm and ADHD burnout is something an occupational therapist may be able to help with. A 7-week study involving 23 women with ADHD found that occupational therapy interventions led to 11 participants showing reduced signs of stress and ADHD symptoms, as well as better task performance and satisfaction.
Those with ADHD could struggle during social interactions more than neurotypical individuals due to some symptoms such as their impulsive actions and tendency to interrupt others. Occupational therapy can help to optimise their environment in order to handle their frustrations in social situations.
In children, this could mean addressing the level of noise and distraction in a classroom, or making sure they are sitting in the best place for them to understand the teacher’s instructions. A 2020 research review suggests that play skills could help to improve these symptoms, as their results show they experienced less inappropriate behaviours. Another study found occupational therapy interventions that were practised both in-clinic and at home resulted in a long-term improvement in social play skills for children with ADHD.
The studies above represent just some of the successful interventions found to enhance the lives of those with ADHD, however each person has a unique set of symptoms, so as an occupational therapist continues to work with an individual and learn more about their needs and day-to-day struggles, further recommendations can be made to help adapt their environment, skills and activities in order to achieve their goals.
How can I access occupational therapy?
Occupational therapy may be accessed through a number of different channels.
Businesses and organisations
In some cases, occupational therapy can be offered within an organisation in order to help employees or members achieve more. For example, a business may offer occupational therapy which can help employees improve their skills and make their job easier, with the end goal of enhancing their success and ultimately increasing the company’s bottom line.
If you are an employee, you can speak to your HR team about whether or not your company offers this, or if you own a business or work in HR, you may find Augmentive’s workplace wellbeing platform is something your employees with ADHD could benefit from – read our article on workplace ADHD statistics in the UK here, and reach out to us to learn more about how this can help you and your team.
Many schools now offer an in-house or visiting occupational therapist to help children learn and achieve in their education. For children with ADHD, this can be extremely helpful as a way to enhance their learning experience and set them up with lifelong skills that will make managing their symptoms easier in childhood and adulthood.
Depending on your situation, you may be able to receive occupational therapy for free through the NHS if you are based in the UK, or through your local council or social services. To find out more about what might be available to you, you can reach out to your GP to ask for a referral, or research your local council on GOV.UK to see what services they could offer you.
Private ADHD and occupational therapists
Many people turn to private therapy options when waiting lists for local services are long, or to access more personalised, one-on-one help. If you are looking specifically for an ADHD therapist who offers occupational therapy, or an occupational therapist who specialises in working with those with ADHD, Augmentive’s free 15 minute consultation can help pair you with the most relevant specialist for you. Once matched, you can discuss the areas you need help with, and create an action plan together.
Research is already showing that occupational therapy can have a huge impact on those struggling with the everyday symptoms of attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. By providing tailored interventions specific to each person’s own circumstances, and offering those with ADHD the right tools and resources for their needs, they can feel less overwhelmed and stop using unhelpful tactics like ADHD masking. Instead, they can begin to feel empowered to stay independent and manage their own symptoms from childhood to adulthood.
Whether you’re feeling off-kilter or want to shake up your routine, our state-of-the-art mental wellbeing platform gives you quick and seamless access to world-class support on your terms, from a private ADHD assessment or review, to broader private mental health care.
If you have a question about mental health, like how CBT for ADHD works, we’re here to assist on your journey. Our free 15 minute consultation can guide you to the most relevant specialists to answer your questions and discuss next steps.