How did you come up with the idea to develop a skateboarding occupational therapy programme for kids on the autism spectrum or with other issues related to coordination and so on?
I've been using skateboards in my occupational therapy work for years. It started informally and then I introduced them into my individual therapy sessions when I saw children at their schools.
Occupational therapists will often use what's called a 'scooter board' in their clinic practice to support a child with strengthening their arms, core and legs, and while they're fun and children like them they're not the type of equipment a child would normally take down to the park and play on.
What I noticed from that experience was that the children thought it was cool for them to come out of their classes and join me for occupational therapy sessions. I also found the skateboard was a great way to support children to calm upset or anxious behaviours and also to bring them up to a state of being ready to learn, just through the rhythmic action of linear movement and motion.
Children also wanted to use them in my holiday programmes, so I decided to offer a group skateboarding lesson during one of those, contracting in a group that coaches in schools, for a two-hour session.
I wanted to apply my clinical reasoning gained from using one board with an individual to a whole group of children.
The concept was successful, so I thought 'why not run ongoing sessions?' To the best of my knowledge nothing like this had been done in New Zealand; when I started researching in 2013 all I came across was a group in the States that ran skate 'drop ins' for children on the autistic spectrum and a psychologist also in the US who uses a longboard with his clients.
With the help of my occupational therapy intern, we researched best practice around supporting gross motor skills, social skills and emotional regulation. Halfway through 2013 we set up our first programme trial using peer mentors and contracted skate coaches and equipment. The team was good and really supportive, and the programme was good but I knew it could be even better and more focused on the therapeutic outcomes the children could achieve.
So in 2014, I took the programme in house, investing in safety gear, skateboards and ramps, employing a skate coach and another occupational therapist, and keeping my team of peer mentors and junior coaches. In term four last year I had the biggest group of participants so far and almost all of them were returning skaters.
What have been the primary challenges for you in developing the programme, and building a business case for it?
The first challenge was being confident enough to create a programme like this that was underpinned with therapeutic reasoning - and finding participants for it. Given that, as far as I know, offering skateboarding as an activity for children in an occupational therapy context hadn't been done anywhere before, I knew it would be a challenge to find families who were prepared to trust the methodology. Spreading the word and the therapeutic reasoning behind the programme has been hard.
Costing the programme has been another challenge. There are lots of things to think about, like contracting my coach and occupational therapist for the year so they can plan accordingly; booking and hiring a hall and school grounds for a year in advance so I have a wet weather plan; insurance to cover the programme; equipment costs and then I need to hopefully pay myself. I not only have to be an occupational therapist, but also a financial person, marketing person, team leader and public speaker.
Personally, what's really helped is having a husband and two sons who've supported me unconditionally. And professionally, I surround myself with a great team who can add value and skills to any of my programmes, as well as people more generally who believe in my programmes.
I've also consulted with occupational therapy leaders in both Australia and Canada, as well as here in NZ, to make sure I'm following best practice, evidence-based occupational therapy models. I have also spoken with a leading provider of leisure-based surf therapy in the UK to gain some insight and encouragement on how to maintain momentum when things are tough.
But above all else, helping me to overcome the challenges has been seeing first hand the change in the children who join the programmes.
What's been your biggest learning about turning an idea into reality as a business owner that you'd like to share?
I can without a doubt say that it's to believe in your idea. One of my mentors from the UK said to me that the programme will always exist if you keep running it. If you stop, it's gone and basically so is the momentum you were creating. So I surround myself with good people and work really hard to share my vision and make a difference.
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