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Speaker Spotlight: Sheila Frick

We are thrilled to spotlight another great Integrative Education (IE) speaker, Sheila Frick. Sheila is the founder of Vital Links and The Therapeutic Listening Program, and we’ve had

the pleasure of hosting her as a speaker for past courses as well as at our upcoming 2023 IE Symposium.

An Occupational Therapist from the Start

Sheila’s journey began with a unique start. Like many, she didn’t grow up aspiring to be an Occupational Therapy Practitioner (OTP). However, she holds the belief that OTPs are born, then educated. As a child, she describes herself as a young OTP who was drawn to neighbors and peers who were neurodivergent and had sensory processing challenges. She loved trying to figure out how those children saw the world, as well as help them to do the things they wanted to do such as riding a bike. She also had a knack for connecting with others and helping them regulate through play. Sheila grew up in a family of educators who inspired her to share her knowledge with others through teaching. As an adolescent, she thought that she would pursue a career in either education or social work. However, when entering college in 1975, teaching jobs were scarce and she feared being unable to find a job after graduation. Hoping to enter a growing field in what was a very difficult economic time, Sheila went to the library and checked out an occupational outlook book. In that book, she was first introduced and drawn to occupational therapy. She began volunteering in the occupational therapy department at her local hospital and quickly fell in love with the career.

A Passion for Learning

Sheila attended college at Eastern Michigan University and joined a wonderful cohort of students who all shared the same love for OT and excitement for learning. While still in OT school, she began attending continuing education courses. Her first course on the topics of sensory integration (SI) and autism was taught by Lorna Jean King. The course made such an impact, that she immediately knew that she wanted her career to focus on SI.

Many years later, that impactful learning opportunity came full circle when Lorna Jean King sat in the audience of one of the courses that Sheila was teaching!

Early Career and Teaching

Despite having a passion for SI, as a new graduate, Sheila was unable to obtain a job or become certified in SI due to her lack of experience in pediatrics. Instead, she took her first job in mental health, working in an adult day treatment program. Simultaneously, she continued to immerse herself in learning about SI and quickly began implementing what she was studying into the day treatment programming. She also took a road trip to Pennsylvania to learn from Karen Petit and Elaine Utley’s SI program within a major psychiatric unit. While Sheila used traditional treatment strategies such as community outings and cooking groups, she also began a sensory integrative group and incorporated equipment such as scooter boards and trampolines. Sheila began writing about the work she was doing in her day treatment program and presenting to small, local groups. She then decided to submit her paper to AOTA and she was invited to present at the AOTA conference in Philadelphia. What she expected to be a small presentation, ended up being over 200 people including several of her mentors and role models in attendance. This speaking opportunity was just the beginning of a lifelong career of teaching others. Sheila explains that she loves teaching because she genuinely gets so excited to share what she is learning and doing with her own clients with others.

Next Steps in Teaching

Sheila’s passion for teaching continued to grow and her audience expanded after attending a course taught by Dr. Patricia Wilbarger in Milwaukee. Sheila asked Dr. Wilbarger if she would come present to a community of therapists in Detroit where she was living at the time. Dr. Wilbarger directed Sheila to coordinate with Eileen Richter and together they worked to bring the Professional Development Programs (PDP) Symposium to Detroit that year. Her relationship with Eileen led to further opportunities including collaborating to write the book, “Motor, Oral, Respiration, Eyes (M.O.R.E.): Integrating the Mouth with Sensory and Postural Functions” along with Patricia Oetter and a foray into more professional speaking opportunities.

Over the next several years, Sheila focused her work and teaching on visual and vestibular connections as well as incorporating auditory interventions. This work, along with the support and collaboration of many mentors, led to the development of The Therapeutic Listening Program as well as Vital Links to teach and train others in the program.

Since the inception of The Therapeutic Listening Program, Sheila has continued to teach on a variety of topics. Her teachings are based on neurobiological and sensorimotor concepts that are greatly influenced by Ayres Sensory Integration. She is also intentional about making sure her concepts are taught with a relational focus and in a way that utilizes patterns to guide treatment rather than formulas.

Clinical Experience

Throughout her teaching journey, Sheila has been driven by her excitement for sharing what she is working on in the clinical setting with others. While learning, writing, and teaching, she has always continued to work directly with clients in a variety of settings. After starting out in a rehabilitation setting and growing her interest in neuroscience through her work with strokes and traumatic brain injuries, Sheila went on to gain pediatric experience in a variety of school settings where she was able to integrate SI into her work. Eventually, her family relocated to Madison, Wisconsin where, after a few years, she began seeing some clients privately in their homes. She decided to take the leap and open her own practice in a small, rented studio space. As her practice grew, she rented a variety of other clinic spaces over the next decade before finally fulfilling her dream of opening her own clinic in an old house that would feel like home for clients. Since opening her clinic, Tracy Bjorling has joined her clinical and teaching team. Sheila describes having found a true partnership in Tracy, explaining that Tracy is able to similarly see concepts as a whole, but also excels at teasing out the linear aspects of the concepts to help others learn.

Trauma Work

Over the past decade, Sheila has become more involved in trauma-informed care. She was introduced to Dr. David Berceli at a Trauma Releasing Exercises (TRE) course which made her realize that the way OTPs look at the world supports clients from a trauma-informed perspective. Her further work with trauma continued to support her primary interest in the brain-body disconnect and how to help others become more embodied. Sheila’s holistic approach to trauma includes using the vestibular system and motor patterns within the autonomic nervous system to release tension patterns, improve regulation, support interoception, and improve embodiment for the purposes of agency.

Ready, Steady, Go

Most recently, Sheila and Tracy have been developing and teaching the clinical reasoning approach of “Ready, Steady, Go” which blends theory, assessment, and treatment into one activities-based approach. This approach structures treatment from the basis of organizing one’s neurophysiology and movement within time and space as a precursor to participation. The “Ready” portion of the model focuses on sensory processing and its relationship to movement as an entry into organizing the body from a neurophysiological and movement perspective. “Steady” focuses on postural organization from the perspective of the vestibular-auditory-visual triad and accompanying activities. Finally, “Go” is about adapting and dynamically supporting individuals' participation in an ever changing 3-dimensional world from a bottom-up and top-down self–monitoring perspective.

Words of Advice

While Sheila has and continues to share her vast clinical knowledge with others, her most important advice to other OTPs is to remember “you don’t know and you do know.” You should never assume that you know exactly how to approach treatment with a client as soon as you meet them and you should view treatment as a continuous process of exploration and asking “why?” and “how?” What matters most is that you remain in a relationship with your clients as you bring your wealth of clinical knowledge to the forefront to support them in revealing more of who they are, supporting ongoing participation, and a sense of belonging.

Learning Opportunities

Integrative Education is excited to be welcoming Sheila along with Tracy Bjorling to present two courses at our upcoming 2023 IE Symposium. Course F: Developmental Roots of Trauma: A Sensorimotor Embodied Approach will take place over two days on February 24-25, 2023. Course J: PowerUp for Participation: Ready, Steady, Go! is an activities-based course that will take place on February 26th, 2023 at the Eagan Community Center in Eagan, MN.


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