Physiotherapist vs. Physical Therapist – Are they one and the same?

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Either way, depending on where you live in the world, knowing what the terms mean and whether physiotherapy vs. physical therapy will be services that put a strain on your family or support your ‘special’ person.  Yes, that’s right, these two terms are referring to the same thing, the very important ability of accomplishing and maintaining mobility.  For the most part, it depends on where you live in the world.  For instance, if it’s in Canada the term physiotherapy applies there but in the United States the term physical therapy is used.  This is not an obscure discipline.  No, my goodness, these are well-educated and accomplished men and women and their work is critically important to you and I.

Physiotherapy vs. Physical Therapist

A wheelchair brings a measure of freedom and autonomy that is truly valuable.

Just think about the child in a wheelchair who needs enough strength to transfer from the chair to a toilet.  I’m sure we all agree that a measure of independence to do daily hygiene will help them to maintain their sense of autonomy and mental well-being.  For other children, it will be a matter of safety, ensuring they have the ability to maintain their balance preventing falls and safety issues.

Physical Therapy for Special Needs Children

There are very important milestones regarding the development of gross motor abilities. Gross motor is simply their use of the large muscles used for walking, kicking, jumping, climbing stairs. It’s pretty important because when a child has trouble with moving in a controlled, coordinated, and efficient way they are at risk for injuries.

Fine motor skills are those abilities to use a pencil and be able to eat on their own with eating utensils.  Correctly holding a writing instrument to draw and write, or to cut with scissors involves a measured, focused degree of precision and control. The fine motor skills are within the oversight of an Occupational Therapist which we will address in more detail in another post.  In this page, I want to provide you with good information about physical therapists.

Children with developmental delays, disabilities, and neurological impairments will be the population of kiddos who will benefit from the insight and support of a physical therapist.  If your child by the time they are two months old does not reach for things and is not lifting their head and neck, if they are 6 months old and NOT turning over from their tummy to their back and vice versa, if they don’t crawl, then these are reasons to engage the services of a physical therapist.

Your Story and Our Story Could Be Very Similar

Here is what my little one was not doing that a Developmental Pediatric Physician observed and then prescribed therapy as soon as was possible.

At 17 months old she was not:

  • Sitting up by herself, would often lose her balance and tumble over
  • Rocking back and forth
  • Crawling
  • Reaching for and grasping things
  • Had only recently begun to turn over onto her tummy or back
  • Pull herself up & furniture walking

This meant she had not and was not developing well, in fact we were told she had global delays.  It was not a surprise to hear!  Both my daughter and I knew something wasn’t right, especially the rocking, it was very alarming. The fact she wasn’t sitting up by herself when she should have been crawling, even walking, at 17 months old was pretty scary.

What Can You Expect During Therapy Sessions

The physical therapist is going to do their assessment of your child’s strengths and needs and develop a therapy plan that will begin the process of strengthening them. The therapy looks allot like play when, in fact, the therapist is working on developing those gross motor skills by correcting and strengthening their balance, core muscles, upper body strength, even trying to teach them things like how to crawl.

I have had two therapists come to us in our home.  Both of them were delightful, tender hearted people.  The first therapist worked with my little one and proved to be such a blessing!  I was still reeling from the loss of my daughter and fighting for the baby’s safety and well-being.  It was quite the emotional roller coaster.  She was so kind, so very kind!  And we talked about many things regarding my granddaughter’s delays such as what I felt were sensory problems.  My granddaughter was always pushing your hands away and hugging seemed to be alarming to her instead of soothing.  I have since read that physical therapists understand the impact having sensory overloads will be to accomplishing the tasks and working on the skills they are going to implement.  Our therapists have skillfully included sensory integration techniques into her physical therapy sessions.

Here are some things we did:

  • Put foam pads on the floor and then we got on the floor with her to encourage crawling
  • We took all the couch pillows off and made an obstacle course on the floor for her to climb on and over
  • We had a big blue exercise ball that she bounced and bounced and bounced on, especially when she was over-stimulated
  • There were games to play catch and games to use badminton rackets, even a pad with a Velcro-like material onto which you could catch a tennis-like ball
  • A tricycle was brought in and she was encouraged to ride it by peddling the cycle

Educated and Accomplished – The therapist comes with years of education behind them

Your therapist most likely has a graduate degree, at least a bachelor’s degree if they are an assistant but to work with special needs children they will have completed a master’s program.  They come with a strong background, getting either a minor or major in psychology, applied behavior, neuroscience, and/or sociology.  Of course, they will have no doubt studied languages, biology, and the anatomy of the human body.

There are special disciplines they can choose such as in Autism, Neurological, Pediatric and Geriatric fields.  And of course, they are certified by an institution overseeing the practice of these folks.  In the United States, the certifying agency are state boards that receive direction and criteria from the Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy.  And in Canada the National Physical Therapy Examination must be passed for certification.  Everyone has to meet the continuing credits requirements in order to maintain their certifications.


Physical therapy for special needs children is very important.   My granddaughter did not ever crawl.  She did scoot on her little bottom everywhere she wanted to go.  It was cute, I do admit, but she wasn’t developing the strength in her arms and hands for writing and today she is still not writing.   I was worried she wasn’t ever going to learn to walk.  With the help of her physical therapist, after 10 months of focused weekly attention, when she was 28 months old she started taking steps around furniture and those few tenuous steps on her own.  What a celebration!  And boy oh boy was I in trouble then because she was mobile!  Suddenly the world was her oyster and she was off to explore it, all of it.  I had to be vigilant about doors keeping an eye on her constantly.  She was a bolter and didn’t have enough language to understand the dangers of the road and cars and strangers, not any of it.  But I was elated she was walking so we just kept up with her.

What has your experience been with helping your little one become mobile?

Did you have a few scares when they started walking.  What was the worse one you faced?

Share your thoughts with us in the comments below.

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