TJC Occupational Therapy Assistant program earns state, local recognition

On Friday, Nov. 1, students in TJC's Occupational Therapy Assistant (OTA) program will be recognized at events in Tyler and Austin, for projects that have improved the lives of their clients.

Helping Cenikor clients turn their lives around
The Cenikor Foundation has named the TJC OTA program as its Community Partner of the Year, for the students' work with clients who have substance abuse and mental health issues. The award will be presented at Cenikor’s annual banquet on Friday at Hollytree Country Club in Tyler.
Last spring, second-year OTA students completed 10 weeks of field work at Cenikor, an East Texas non-profit substance abuse and behavioral health organization offering long- and short-term inpatient services.

“As third-semester students, part of their training includes working in the mental health field,” said Jennifer Garner, TJC OTA professor and academic field work coordinator. “Our students work alongside the counselors and help to provide activities and education about daily living as far as coping skills.”
Occupational therapy covers a broad range of tasks, making it difficult to define.
Student Robyn Smith, of Ben Wheeler, said, “I tell people that, in a nutshell, my job is to help people to be as independent as possible in every single thing they do throughout their daily lives. It’s maximizing their independence, whether it’s getting dressed or the social aspect such as recognizing emotional triggers. I cover everything.”
For the Cenikor clients, the students’ work can be life changing.
“Basically, we were helping to get them ready for the moment they walk back out into the real world,” said student Cherish Austin, of Van. “They’ve been in a treatment facility, but the outside world has stayed the same; so, how could we help them adjust so they can be successful?”
A key aspect was helping clients to define and cope with behavioral triggers.
“People don’t necessarily recognize their daily routines could be part of the problem,” Austin said. “For instance, the route they take driving home from work could take them by a store that sells alcohol. So, we had a discussion about that and had them write down their routine on paper, step by step, so they could see where we could make changes and avoid those possible triggers.”
Seeing the light bulb go off and having their clients make positive changes was a great feeling.
Smith said, “We made sure they got the appropriate treatment and helped them to understand that they’re not a bad person because they’re on drugs. They’re doing drugs because they have an issue. And when we treat the issue, life gets better and then we can help them work on having a daily routine, a healthy life and new skills.”
She continued, “A lot of it was helping to lead them to these self-realizations. Someone can tell you all day long that you have a problem, but when you realize it for yourself and can identify certain things, you can make big changes in your life.”
Elizabeth Olivier, TJC OTA director and department chair, said, “In TJC’s new strategic plan, one of our priorities is to form authentic partnerships that benefit both sides of the equation.
“I think this is a good example in that we sought out Cenikor because we needed a place for our students to go that had some sort of mental health and psychosocial emphasis. So, our students have gone in and fulfilled a need that we had as well as a need that they had. This has been a great, authentic partnership.”
De-stressing dental visits for children with autism
As the Cenikor students are being honored in Tyler on Friday, a group of second-year OTA students from TJC will be at the Texas Occupational Therapy Association conference in Austin, presenting on a 16-week project they created to make it easier for children with autism to go to the dentist.
“To start, we looked at what a dental visit looks like for a child with autism, and we found out that they usually involved that child either being restrained or sedated,” said TJC OTA student Emily Calafat, of Grand Prairie.
They also learned that children with autism are less likely to receive dental treatment at all, since the experience is not only traumatic for the patients but also for their parents as well as the healthcare professionals who treat them.
Since most of the children’s difficulties stem from sensory issues such as loud noises, bright lighting and even smells, the TJC students set out on identifying and reducing the stress factors.
“Along with the sensory issues, children with autism are also very specific and need to know what to expect before being thrown into a new situation,” said TJC OTA student Victoria Swinney, of Tyler. “So, we collaborated with the dental hygiene students in the TJC dental clinic and created a short storybook for them with actual pictures of our dental clinic, the student hygienists who would treat them, and the exact dental instruments they would use.”
Calafat said, “Their routines are very strict, so having their parents read the story to them at least once a day before the visit made helped them to be prepared.”
The OTA students also worked with TJC mass communications students to create a detailed walk-through video that the children could watch ahead of time.
“The video showed what the visit would look like, starting with meeting them at the door, seeing what the building looked like, and even showing them the process of the dental cleaning.”
Olivier said the students also collected information about each child from their families and then created a list of possible adaptations.
Calafat said, “That allowed us to create client-centered, individualized plans for each patient.”
Their outcomes were a rousing success, since each of the three test patients were able to comfortably tolerate their treatments.
Swinney said, “The youngest patient, a little girl, had been to so many doctors’ visits that she would panic at the sight of someone wearing scrubs – and she was able to make it through. She was even able to get fluoride treatment done, which her mother said she hadn’t been able to do before.”
As a bonus, the OTA students were also able to raise awareness in their fellow students in the dental hygiene program on how to treat the needs of patients with autism and other issues.
“Based on some of the interactions we’ve had with dental hygiene, they tend to avoid patients with disabilities, even though they might not be aware of it,” Garner said.
“We’ve gone into the dental clinic with some of our physical therapist assistant students and taught the dental hygiene students how to move a patient back and forth from a wheelchair to a dental chair. The dental hygiene students would say things like, ‘We don’t usually do this,’ but they don’t realize that the reason they don’t do this is because these people usually don’t come in for treatment. So, this is where they learn to try.”
Olivier said, “The idea in my head is, if you want to change something in practice, you have to start with the new practitioners. This was step one.”

About the TJC program
The TJC Occupational Therapy Assistant program provides students with four semesters of classroom and laboratory learning followed by one semester of full-time field work under the supervision of a registered occupational therapist or a certified occupational therapy assistant.

With a median annual salary of $54,520 nationally, the job outlook is strong and expected to grow by 40 percent over the next 10 years.
For more information, go to

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