What’s the role of occupational therapy (OT) in treating autism?
Occupational therapists study human growth and development and a person’s interaction with the environment through daily activities. They are experts in the social, emotional, and physiological effects of illness and injury. This knowledge helps them promote skills for independent living in people with autism and other developmental disorders.
Occupational therapists work as part of a team that includes parents, teachers, and other professionals. They help set specific goals for the person with autism. These goals often involve social interaction, behavior, and classroom performance.
Occupational therapists can help in two main ways: evaluation and therapy.
How is occupational therapy useful for evaluation of autism?
The therapist observes children to see if they can do tasks they are expected to do at their ages — getting dressed or playing a game, for example. Sometimes, the therapist will have the child videotaped during the day in order to see how the child interacts with his or her environment so that he or she can better assess the kind of care the child needs. The therapist might note any of the following:
Attention span and stamina
Transition to new activities
Need for personal space
Responses to touch or other types of stimuli
Motor skills such as posture, balance, or manipulation of small objects
Aggression or other types of behaviors
Interactions between the child and caregivers
How does occupational therapy help a person with autism?
Once an occupational therapist has gathered information, he or she can develop a program for your child. There is no single ideal treatment program. But early, structured, individualized care has been shown to work best.
Occupational therapy may combine a variety of strategies. These can help your child respond better to his or her environment. These OT strategies include:
Physical activities, such as stringing beads or doing puzzles, to help a child develop coordination and body awareness
Play activities to help with interaction and communication
Developmental activities, such as brushing teeth and combing hair
Adaptive strategies, including coping with transitions
What are the benefits of occupational therapy for autism?
The overall goal of occupational therapy is to help the person with autism improve his or her quality of life at home and in school. The therapist helps introduce, maintain, and improve skills so that people with autism can be as independent as possible.
These are some of the skills occupational therapy may foster:
You may have heard a lot about sensory integration therapy. That’s because some researchers estimate that eight out of 10 children with autism have problems processing sensory input. For example, they can’t filter out background noise. Other signs of processing issues include:
Problems with balance
Problems with body position in space
Oversensitivity to touch and the feel of certain types of clothing, such as socks with seams
With autism, social, behavioral, or attention problems can be partly a result of these sensory challenges.
Although more research is needed, OT can help with sensory integration and some of the related behavioral problems. Research suggests sensory integration therapy is less helpful in improving academic performance.