Once a week a group of boys aged seven to ten meets near University of North Carolina Wilmington to talk and play games.
While playgroups aren’t unusual, the success of this group is worth noting. The boys are all developmentally challenged, and they’re all clients of COASTAL KIDS THERAPY, a practice that employs occupational therapy techniques to assist children with developmental needs.
Founded by occupational therapist LAUREL THORNTON, the center serves ninety local children. As for the boys’ group, she says they all struggle with friendships at school.
“We felt it was important for them to make friends and have a place they feel safe and are able to flourish as the unique, wonderful kids that they are,” Thornton says. “We meet weekly with them and have a variety of activities with the focus on developing social skills and forming friendships. We also take them on outings once a month.”
While in high school, Thornton became interested in children with special needs when she sat for a neighbor’s child who had cerebral palsy.
“The family had him in therapy, so he had some of the equipment I would come to use in my practice,” she says. “One of the books they had would later be one of my textbooks in school.”
Thornton moved to Wilmington after years of visiting her grandparents here. The East Carolina University grad had practiced occupational therapy in New Bern and Raleigh and had spent many years in the Wake and Cumberland county school systems.
“Wilmington was always the place I thought I would retire,” she says.
As she and her sister, BLAIR KUTROW, approached age fifty, they discussed how they wanted to spend the next half of their lives. Moving to Wilmington jumped to the top of the list
"Building Confidence, a playful
take on therapy."
From: WILMA Magazine, May 2015. By TERESA MCLAMB | photos by KATHERINE CLARK.
“Wilmington is a great place to live and a super great place to retire,” Thornton says. “I love the beach and downtown; there’s so much to do here.” The two forged a plan that included Kutrow’s business management experience with Thornton’s therapy expertise. In March 2012, they took the leap and opened Coastal Kids Therapy on Racine Drive.
Thornton says occupational therapy is defined as “the use of assessment and treatment to develop, recover, or maintain the daily living skills of people with physical, mental, or cognitive challenges.” Children’s occupations are playing, learning, and self-care, she says.
Children with conditions such as cerebral palsy or autism or genetic syndromes such as Down syndrome can benefit from occupational therapy.
“We evaluate the visual motor, sensory motor, and fine motor skills of the child,” Thornton says. Then a plan is developed with input from the parents as to what goals are set so that the child can be as independent and successful as he or she can be. “The goals might be dressing skills, feeding skills, handwriting, or fine motor skills such as being able to play with toys, manage clothing fasteners, or hold a pencil,” she says.
Thornton says her office looks more like a playhouse than an office, with rocking chairs, swings, a trapeze, and an obstacle course. “Everything we do looks like play, and we try to find things that are super fun and motivating for the children,” she says. Activities might include squeezing clothespins to pick up objects on the floor. They might swing from a trapeze and pop bubbles with their feet, which results in strengthening of their arms, hands, and core muscles.
"Believe it or not, all of that has an impact on a skill set such as handwriting because they have to have the postural control to sit in a chair and hold their body up in order to use their hands correctly and have the strength to hold a pencil and the motor planning to form letters,” Thorton says.
Thornton’s patients range in age from four months to seventeen years. They are brought in by parents, referred by doctors, and forwarded by the state’s Children’s Developmental Services Agencies, which provide intervention for children from birth to three years who have developmental delays but may have no specific diagnosis.
“The earlier you get these services, the better,” Thornton says.
In addition to Thornton, Coastal Kids Therapy has three therapists. “We try to focus on what motivates the child and building the child’s self-confidence so that each time they leave their therapy session they feel they’ve achieved something, and they’re a little more confident,” she says. “I’m proud of the fact that we came here not knowing anyone other than our grandparents and had to build a reputation for ourselves,” Thornton says, adding that the office has worked with 300 children in the past three years. “It’s been a team effort. It’s been an amazing journey so far, and I can’t wait to see what the future holds for us.”