Rosellen Ryals’ interest in occupational therapy was spurred by her desire to help children. More than 30 years later, that passion still drives Ryals, especially when it comes to caring for children with autism and other behavioral issues.
Pediatrics has always a been a part of occupational therapy, but Ryals said it’s an area of care that’s often overlooked by most people who aren’t in the field.
That’s one of the reasons Ryals has spent the better part of her career specializing in working with children and doing her part to raise awareness about autism.
“The success kids have when they would come and give me hugs or you would see them smile or actually call my name and to see them respond, you knew that you had clicked somewhere with them and you could make a difference for them,” she said. “I’ve seen them change dramatically in just a few sessions and be able to accept and show their parents, and to see the parents respond to how they feel.”
Ryals is an occupational therapist at Physical Therapy Services, 410 E. Main St. When she started at the practice in Johnson City, she worked with about six different children. In less than 10 years, that number has increased to well more than 200.
After learning about occupational therapy when she was working on a physical therapy degree, Ryals realized occupational therapy was more suited to her interests and how she wanted to help people.
“Where physical therapy works on gait and exercise, occupational therapy covers the psychological and the social. It’s more holistic and we get to do it in functional activities, such as play,” she said.
When Ryals set out to gain an education in occupational therapy there weren’t any schools in Tennessee that specialized in that area, so she ended up moving to Georgia where she was accepted into a medical college to focus on occupational therapy work.
Ryals met her husband while in school and returned to the area to begin working at a nursing home. Before leaving the area once again when her husband joined the military, Ryals had a hand in setting up one of the first occupational therapy programs at Johnson City Medical Center.
Since working at the Physical Therapy Services clinic in Johnson City, Ryals has been able to also work with local school systems, which has allowed her to use sensory processing, self-care skills and other visual and auditory tactics to better a child’s work both at home and in the classroom.
“These kids are really smart and it was just an interest and feeling comfortable with being able to relate to the kids. The autistic kids aren’t stupid. They are very smart, and so by giving them the opportunity to show me what they know and showing how much they feel … it just kind of drifted and made sense to pulling it into my techniques,” she said.
Part of what has made Ryals’ career so rewarding is by building a supportive network for the parents of the children she takes care of. Through her work with autism, Ryals has served with the Autism Support Network, Friendship Club, Autism Society of America and East Tennessee State University Quillen College of Medicine.
The enjoyment Ryals gets from seeing her kids excel and helping parents care for their children is what has kept her working in the same field for 33 years.
“The marriage breakup rate on special needs kids’ families is huge and the more things that we can do to keep those families calm and together the better success they’ll see,” she said. “Seeing the kids be successful in school and watching them turn into successful adults — that’s what it’s all about.”