Occupational Therapy and Autism

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What Is Autism?

Autism spectrum disorder, commonly referred to as Autism, is a developmental disability that impacts the nervous system. Autism varies in severity and the signs and symptoms associated with the disorder typically manifest in early childhood. This disorder is commonly characterized by repetitive behaviors, issues with speech and nonverbal communication, and challenges with social skills. It can impair a child’s ability to not only communicate with parents and peers but can also restrict their daily activities and ability to play.

Autism covers a wide range of conditions and individuals with autism will fall into a specific classification on the spectrum depending on the types and severity of their symptoms. There is no known cause for autism, and no known cure, despite significant scientific studies being conducted. There are, however, several ways to potentially reduce the symptoms associated with autism, including educational, family, and behavioral therapies. Occupational therapy is one way many parents are helping their children cope with autism.

What Is Occupational Therapy for Autism?

Occupational Therapy (OT) provides hands-on rehabilitative care to individuals with physical or mental disabilities. It provides them with a way to lead a fulfilled and satisfied life using the performance of activities required in everyday life. During an Occupational therapy treatment session, individuals work on improving physical, social, cognitive, and motor skills.

Occupational Therapists treat the whole person, as opposed to focusing on a particular body part. They provide a holistic approach to rehabilitation and wellness. When individuals with autism seek the assistance of an Occupational Therapist, they will learn valuable skills that help them gain more independence and lead fulfilling lives. Some of the tasks an occupational therapist may help a person with autism learn are:

  • Eating
  • Grooming
  • Dressing
  • Gain fine motor skills such as coloring and writing
  • Social Interaction
  • Managing emotions

These highly trained professionals help to promote active participation in life by improving self-esteem and enhancing their abilities to interact in social settings. OTs consider the sensory, cognitive, social, emotional, and physical needs of children with autism and design an individualized plan that helps improve the child’s overall well-being.

What Does an Occupational Therapy Session for Autism Look Like?

Occupational therapists will be working in close conjunction with the parents and teachers of the child with autism. They will be setting specific goals for the child with autism to improve classroom performance, behavior, and social interactions. The first step in occupational therapy would be a thorough evaluation of the how the child completes tasks that they are expected to perform for their age, such as dressing on their own. Occupational therapists will also ask for reports from the parents and teachers to find out about the child’s self-care, daily living skills, and interpersonal relationships.

Once the evaluation is conducted, the Occupational Therapist will begin by setting goals to address the most pressing issues. These goals are collectively referred to as an intervention plan. Parents and teachers will need to understand that there will be one to three main focal points for the intervention plan. Autism is a complex disorder and symptoms will take a long time to be mitigated. Therefore, it is imperative that all people involved with the child understand that focal points are necessary.

Once an intervention plan is in place, the child-centered sessions will begin. Common intervention plans will help to improve skills in areas of weakness, as well as build on areas of strength. The Occupational Therapist will use table-top and floor-based play activities to help a child improve on these skills. Therapy sessions will vary greatly depending on each individual’s needs. Some common skills worked on during a typical OT session are:

  • Hand-eye Coordination – children will pick up small pieces of food and bring them to the mouth
  • Cognition and perception – children will try to get a toy out of a box
  • Fine Motor Skills – children will pick up small items to help develop the small muscles in the fingers
  • Environmental modifications/technology/adaptive equipment – changing the environment so that a child can perform a task more efficiently (ex. Using a pencil grip on a pencil so that the child can hold it more securely)
  • Gross Motor Coordination/Postural Stability – children will run, walk, stand during play
How Do I Find an Occupational Therapist?

The first source to check with about finding an Occupational Therapist for your child would be your pediatrician. Many pediatricians are able to refer patients to well-known Occupational Therapists in the area that have their own private practice. Remember, early intervention is key to helping your child but even if your child is older, an Occupational Therapist can help. Occupational Therapists are trained to help individuals at any stage in life, from infant to elderly.

Most children with autism are able to access Occupational Therapy through their school. From preschool to high school, students with disabilities are required to have access to this therapy. The majority of insurance plans will also help to cover the need for private Occupational Therapy. Depending on the severity of your child’s autism, there may be a state waiver that allows your family to access Occupational Therapy through the use of Medicaid.

Occupational Therapy is the best holistic approach to all individuals with autism, regardless of age. It can provide the much-needed skills during childhood that will lead to a happy, successful life for your child with autism. Occupational Therapy can also offer parents the necessary support and resources they need when faced with the challenge of raising a child with a developmental disorder. Autism may not have a cure, but the symptoms of the disorder can be mitigated through Occupational Therapy.