Physical therapy professional working with a child who has a disability

The Role of PTAs in Treating Developmental Disabilities

Learn How PTAs Can Improve the Lives of Patients with Developmental Disabilities or Neurological Impairments

Physical therapy professional working with a child who has a disability

It may sound obvious, but many people require specialized care for developmental disabilities. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 64 million people in the United States live with a functional disability. Physical Therapist Assistants (PTAs) help people with developmental disabilities or neurological impairments improve muscle strength, maintain mobility, manage pain, and learn new ways to complete daily tasks. Under the supervision of physical therapists, these PTAs can develop and guide people through strengthening exercises that meet their unique needs.

If you think about it, physical therapy is vital when it comes to the health and well-being of adults and children with developmental disabilities. This is where teams with Physical Therapist Assistants come into play. With a physical therapy program in place, people with developmental disabilities can utilize services that enhance their daily functions and boost independence.

This blog post will explore the specific contributions and challenges of PTAs in treating individuals with developmental disabilities or neurological impairments. We’ll also review the duties, techniques, and educational requirements for becoming a Physical Therapist Assistant. Learn how to become a Physical Therapist Assistant and consider the top PTA jobs to see if this career path suits you.

Understanding Physical Therapy

PTAs who treat patients with developmental disabilities work in schools, homes, outpatient care centers, and specialized facilities. They aim to optimize physical function and promote participation in daily activities. They might encounter people with significant lags in fine and gross motor skills, social and emotional skills, cognitive thinking, or speech and language. In summation, PTAs often work with patients of all ages and abilities.

Some common conditions treated by physical therapists and PTAs include:

  • Cerebral Palsy
  • Down Syndrome
  • Multiple Sclerosis
  • Muscular Dystrophy
  • Spina Bifida

The Role of PTAs in Treating Developmental Disabilities

Physical Therapist Assistants work under physical therapists, who are often referred to as “movement experts.” PTAs help their patients with mobility training, adaptive equipment use, and activity participation. These professionals promote overall health by supporting physical therapists at facilities across the country. PTAs guide patients through tailored interventions designed to foster independence and promote motor skill development.

In addition, PTAs must maintain a collaborative approach and work with physical therapists, occupational therapists, and other healthcare professionals in addressing multifaceted needs. Typically, PTAs also collaborate with the families and caregivers of their patients.

Close up of a physical therapy professional with an older client

Common Conditions Treated by PTAs

PTAs may encounter a wide range of conditions and disorders when treating patients with developmental disabilities, such as cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, spina bifida, and muscular dystrophy. Take a closer look at each condition with us.

Cerebral Palsy

Cerebral palsy (CP) covers a group of disorders that affect a person’s development, movement, and posture. It is typically caused by a brain injury that can occur before, during, or after birth. Some injuries may be the result of trauma, a stroke, or any loss of oxygen.

Those who have CP can have difficulty with many systems in the body. For example, CP can cause seizures, speech issues, developmental and cognitive delay, and sensory abnormalities. Physical therapy can help those with CP throughout each stage of their life. The goal of physical therapy is to improve mobility functions and daily activities. Under the supervision of a physical therapist, PTAs can help people with CP perform tasks like walking and using an assistive device or wheelchair in various situations. Additionally, these professionals can help families receive equipment to support their loved ones with CP.

Down Syndrome

Down syndrome affects individuals who have an extra copy of chromosome 21. In total, they have 47 chromosomes instead of the usual 46. This difference affects how their brains and bodies develop. However, many people with Down syndrome lead healthy and happy lives.

There can be a range of behavioral and cognitive symptoms. When it comes to physical symptoms, you might see a flat nose bridge, a short neck, weak muscle tone, “slanted eyes that point upward,” and more. People with Down syndrome may also have small hands and feet or a height that’s shorter than average. As they age, children can experience issues with their vision, ears, and teeth. Unfortunately, they are more prone to illnesses or infections.

Thankfully, physical, occupational, and speech therapy can assist with genetic disorders like Down syndrome. Physical therapy teams often work on improving endurance, muscle strength, gross motor coordination, range of motion, and balance/coordination skills. They also aim to help their patients acquire functional skills. They might suggest modifying a child’s environment to help them thrive (i.e., home, school, etc.)

Spina Bifida

This condition occurs if the spine and spinal cord do not form correctly. According to the Mayo Clinic, spina bifida is a kind of neural tube defect. A part of this tube doesn’t close for some babies, which affects the spinal cord as well as the bones of the spine. It’s important to remember that symptoms can vary from one person to another. In addition, there are several types of spina bifida. Some symptoms may include issues with bladder or bowel function. In the most severe type of spina bifida, a sac forms and protrudes from the lower or middle back.

Although the official cause is unknown, it has been speculated that spina bifida is the result of genetic, environmental, and nutritional factors. Some risks are a family history of neural tube defects and a lack of vitamin B-9 during pregnancy. Regarding treatment, infants born with spina bifida will receive care from a team of medical professionals. Physical therapists and PTAs can play a vital role in helping their patients reach developmental milestones. Additionally, they strive to reduce any long-term complications of spina bifida. They specialize in hands-on care, prescribed movement, and patient/family education.

Muscular Dystrophy

Muscular dystrophy refers to a number of diseases that cause a loss of muscle mass and progressive weakness. So, what causes this? Abnormal genes hinder the creation of proteins that are required to form healthy muscle. Some symptoms might include muscle pain or stiffness, frequent falls, difficulty running and jumping, learning disabilities, delayed growth, and more. Like spina bifida, there are several types of muscular dystrophy.

Physical therapy and physiotherapy can greatly help patients with muscular dystrophy. Healthcare professionals might focus on a range of motion exercises, supportive bracing, low-impact workouts, assistive technology devices, and non-invasive ventilation.

Physical therapy professional helping an elderly woman lift weights

Techniques Utilized in Physical Therapy

PTAs use various techniques and modalities to assist their patients in physical therapy. Through individualized treatment plans, they may utilize exercises like walking, resistance training, stretching, and pain management. Physical Therapist Assistants aim to provide their patients with improved muscle strength, coordination, balance, and physical endurance. In addition, it’s vital that each person experiences family or caregiver involvement and community integration to maximize patient outcomes.

Here are a few other techniques that a physical therapy team might use for patients with developmental disabilities:

  • Assistive technology use
  • Balance and coordination training
  • Education on home safety
  • Gait training
  • Manual therapy
  • Sensory integration therapy

How to Become a Physical Therapist Assistant

Because PTAs must meet the basic requirements, they will need to graduate from an accredited associate-degree program and pass the NPTE exam. These Physical Therapist Assistants must ensure that they can care for patients with developmental disabilities.

Our guide breaks down what it takes to become a Physical Therapist Assistant:

1. Complete a Physical Therapist Assistant Degree Program

If you’d like to become a PTA in the U.S., you will need to earn an associate degree from a PTA program that’s accredited by CAPTE. It’s important to remember that each program will have its own set of admissions requirements. To give you a better idea, the PTA degree program at Unitek College requires a high school diploma or GED, a passing score on the Test of Essential Academic Skills (TEAS) exam, and more. In addition, the Unitek College program requires background checks and drug screenings.

While your PTA education will likely include some general education requirements, most of your program will focus on core classes like anatomy, physical ailments, medical terminology, and patient care. Students also typically learn about kinesiology and equipment operation, not to mention mental health and legal issues. Ask your program director what elective courses you can try to specialize further in your desired area of physical therapy.

Stethoscope draped over a stack of textbooks

2. Pass the National Physical Therapy Exam

In order to obtain your PTA license and start your career, you must pass the National Physical Therapy Exam (NPTE). This test demonstrates your mastery of the necessary skills to perform PTA tasks. The NPTE is a multiple-choice test with 200 questions. Keep in mind that you’ll have four hours to complete this exam.

If you’re nervous about taking the test, you might want to speak with graduates who have been in this situation. Talk to your teachers and counselors. Consider practice exams, too. Go to the Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy website to learn more about these exams. They offer PEAT, or the Practice Exam and Assessment Tool, to provide you with an idea of what to expect on the exam. However, it’s important to remember that you can only retake the test up to three times in any given 12-month period.

3. Obtain Your PTA License on a State-By-State Basis

After you’ve successfully completed the NPTE, you’ll be eligible to become licensed in the state(s) where you plan to work. Because the NPTE is a national exam, it’s usually easy to transfer your scores to gain licensure in different states. The Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy will be your go-to resource for determining each state’s licensing requirements for PTAs.

Although some states have different requirements for maintaining your PTA license, most states will require the completion of ongoing education programs or proof of current employment and relevant work experience.

4. Gain Work Experience

The next step is to build your resume and gain work experience. If you’d like to stand out from other job candidates, you should also obtain certification in basic life support (BLS). PTAs who would like to specialize in developmental disabilities should apply for jobs with physical therapists who focus on this area of physical therapy. Not only is this one of the most valuable ways to gain experience, but it can also serve as an excellent networking opportunity.

Challenges of Treating Patients with Developmental Disabilities

Physical Therapist Assistants face several challenges with patients who have developmental disabilities or neurological impairments, such as communication barriers, behavioral issues, and complex care needs. Some strategies to overcome these challenges can include cultural sensitivity and interdisciplinary collaboration. Above all else, PTAs must ensure that they use patient-centered approaches to provide the best care possible.

In addition, PTAs in this role must know how to properly interact with vulnerable patients. This includes several mental and emotional skills. Again, since PTAs work directly with people who have developmental disabilities, they should possess great interpersonal skills and a compassionate nature.

Benefits of Treating Patients with Developmental Disabilities

Many healthcare professionals find it very satisfying to work with patients who have developmental disabilities. Not only can PTAs make a meaningful impact on the lives of others, but they can derive great satisfaction from witnessing functional improvements, skill acquisition, and increased participation in daily activities.

PTAs promote inclusion and advocate for individuals with developmental disabilities. They strive to empower others and help them reach their full potential. More often than not, PTAs create important and significant connections with their patients.

Senior patient in rehabilitation performing exercises

Your Journey into Physical Therapy Starts Here

In conclusion, this guide sheds light on the career path of a Physical Therapist Assistant. For people who love the idea of helping patients improve their motor skills and promote independence, becoming a PTA could be a wonderful career choice. Physical therapy can also boost the mental health of patients and provide PTAs with a great deal of job satisfaction. Now and in the future, there will always be a need for healthcare professionals like Physical Therapist Assistants.

Explore opportunities in developmental disability rehabilitation, where you’ll find a diverse range of settings and populations. You can pursue your passion for physical therapy with ongoing education and professional development in this dynamic field. Unitek College offers a Physical Therapist Assistant program in Sacramento and several other healthcare programs. They are designed to equip you with the skills and knowledge needed for a successful healthcare career.

At Unitek, we aim to provide you with the necessary skills and experience to excel as a Physical Therapist Assistant. We want you ready to contribute as compassionate, ethical professionals who uphold the dignity of their patients. Upon graduating, we also want to prepare you for licensure by helping you confidently undertake the PTA certification exams.

In addition, our career services team offers several perks. They provide students with mock interviews and networking opportunities with potential employers. They also offer resume critiques to help each student succeed in becoming a PTA.

Join us today!