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Mobilizing Occupational Therapy

Meghan Gourley

If you can’t come to Diana Henry, MS, OTR/L, she’ll come to you.

That diesel truck you may have spotted on the highway toting a giant, brightly decorated recreation vehicle isn’t a family of five on a cross-country vacation. It’s Henry and her husband, Rick Ruess, in their fifth-wheel home offering ATEACHABOUT™, the "over the road" program that brings sensory integration information to students, teachers, administrators, parents, and therapists.

Henry’s unique and mobile approach to practice was launched in January 2000 after 25 years in a traditional practice setting in Phoenix, Arizona. She traveled often to conduct workshops all over the country but was limited in the time she could spend with participants.

"I would be scheduled [to visit] for 2 days and then due to leave," she said. "Now I can offer the school districts the options of having us stay for longer periods of time." At an upcoming workshop in New York, Henry will arrive a day early and spend the day observing teachers and students. She will have a better perspective of the problems the school encounters and how teachers deal with them, thereby allowing her to respond directly to what she observed and customize the workshop to the participants’ needs.

"This isn’t just for the special ed. child, but all children," she said. "That’s the biggest part of this whole process—the teachers and administrators who participate. [The workshop] can enhance the school principal’s ability to work with staff by having them understand the sensory needs that all kids have."

More than 20 years ago the Education for All Handicapped Children Act1 brought occupational therapy into the schools, but therapists were limited to treating only children identified with special needs. "I was becoming frustrated because I was seeing kids who had needs that could be helped through prevention," Henry said. So rather than work in the schools, she opened Henry OT Services, Inc., a clinic specializing in sensory integrative treatment, and practiced in a traditional medical model. "But little by little parents would say, ‘Our child does not qualify for OT in the school, but the teacher knows something’s wrong.’" Those responses shifted Henry’s focus to a new school-based practice. That shift spread through school systems in Arizona, and Henry found educators who longed to understand and be trained to help their students.

Christine Whitford, OTR/L, a school therapist who works with pre-kindergartners in the Syracuse, New York, school district, attended a recent ATEACHABOUT workshop to get more insight into sensory integration. "[Henry] explains it in a manner anyone can understand; she helps you feel what these kids are going through," Whitford said.

To help participants understand why a student may rock in his or her chair, Henry used ball chairs for dynamic sitting and passed out small balls, key chains, and stuffed animals for participants to hold and finger during the presentation. "People were much more comfortable—I felt as though I was listening much better," Whitford said. Similarly, the student who rocks may actually be trying to listen because rocking helps with concentration.

Henry gave participants another powerful demonstration when she abruptly asked the group to find another seat halfway through the seminar, irritating some of the participants who did not want to leave their "space." Those uncomfortable in their new seats had a more difficult time listening, similar to a child with sensory integration dysfunction who is frequently asked to change seats. "You don’t really think about those things until someone puts you in that position," Whitford said.

Offering workshops in the schools allows for more participants, which helps to educate the general public about sensory integration, Henry said. "Our mission is to spread the word about sensory integration so that the public can understand and use the principles behind it." The program includes general knowledge about sensory integration and evolving definitions of the terminology. Henry then demonstrates easy activities that teachers and parents can do in the classroom and at home to help students concentrate better. The activities cover all areas of sensory integration, such as "sensory safe" environments, positioning tools, movement tools, hand games to develop handwriting muscles, and calming and quieting tools.

Since Henry and her husband took to the road in January, their schedule has filled up quickly, and the ATEACHABOUT program already has reached hundreds in all sections of the country.

Traveling in the fifth-wheel home not only allows Henry the flexibility of arriving early and leaving late, but also gives her and her husband—who quit his job to travel with her— time to visit and tour the country. It was actually Ruess who had the idea to create ATEACHABOUT when sitting with Henry on top of North Mountain in Arizona. Henry had just returned from a workshop in Woodstock, Illinois, complaining about planes and telling him that "it’s so sad because it was beautiful there and I couldn’t share it with you." Ruess replied, "I have an idea," and 2 years later the couple sold their house and furniture, bought the fifth wheel and a diesel truck to pull it, and hit the road.

Although Ruess is not an occupational therapist, he always has been fascinated by children’s behaviors. He was convinced of the necessity of the services Henry provides after the couple repeatedly met several parents of former clients whom Henry had worked with as children years ago. "They said they were going to college and they’re so successful now," Henry said. "He saw how it really works."


1. Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975. Pub. L. 94–142, 20 U.S.C. § 1400 et seq.

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Henry OT Services, Inc
4000 Pipit Place, Flagstaff, AZ 86004
E-Mail: rick@henryot.com


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