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Occupational Therapy for Autism

Occupational therapists commonly help individuals recover from sickness, accidents, and physical injuries. However, they also provide intervention services when mental disability, developmental delay, or sensory issues interfere with self-care and the quality of life. Occupational therapy services and programs, commonly designed for those with autism, help children and adults achieve maximum independence through adapting their environment to meet their unique needs.

What is Occupational Therapy?

Occupational therapy seeks to empower individuals so that they can participate in everyday occupations. The term “occupation” refers to any activity that occupies a person’s time. Work, play, rest, leisure activities, or social interactions are all occupations. Since autism is a neurological dysfunction, an occupational therapist observes and evaluates typical sensory problems that often interfere with functional independence such as:


Occupational therapy session with iPad

  • fine and gross motor skills
  • postural control, body movements, and motor planning
  • self-help and personal-care skills
  • hand-eye coordination or balancing difficulties
  • visual perception and spatial skills
  • lack of assertiveness and emotional deficits
  • social interaction and behavior problems
  • excessive anxiety and sleep difficulties
  • attention deficits and study habits

While the overall goal of therapy is to help autistic children achieve productive and successful lives, occupational therapists employed by U.S. school systems evaluate a child’s abilities and deficits according to what hinders participation in school activities and programs. Treatment focuses on school-related tasks, but not what will enable a child to excel at home or in the community. For help with life skills and problems that don’t interfere with learning, parents may need to seek out a private therapist.

Related: Teaching Life Skills to Autistic Children

Unlike some autism treatments, occupational therapy does not teach new skills. Instead, a therapist designs an individualized treatment plan that improves current abilities, modifies the way a child does things, or seeks to correct sensory imbalances. While occupational therapy programs often look like fun and games, the goal for each therapeutic exercise is to assist autistic children in performing meaningful activities in a more successful, yet independent way.

Sensory Processing Disorder

The brain and spinal column, also known as the central nervous system, contains nerve cells that organize and perceive sensory information. These perceptions affect and motivate learning and behavior. When sensory integration occurs successfully, the brain responds appropriately to stimuli; but when the brain fails to interpret the incoming information correctly, sensory issues result.

Almost all children with autism experience sensory integration dysfunction in one or more of their sensory systems. While most people are familiar with the basic five senses of sight, smell, touch, taste, and hearing, occupational therapy also helps with defects in the vestibular and proprioceptive systems.

Scrambled sensory information can cause an overabundance of sensory stimulation (hypersensitivity) or not enough (hyposensitivity). It can vary from system to system, day to day, or even hour to hour.

Occupational therapists are educated and trained to identify these issues. After observation, evaluation, and problem solving, they facilitate strategies to help accommodate a child’s needs, including helping parents to find adaptable equipment if needed.

For example, a smell-sensitive child may react adversely to how his clothing, or the clothing of another person, smells. Since most autistic children lack communication skills, the problem may surface in the form of screaming, crying, hitting, biting, or running away. By switching to a fragrance-free detergent and fabric softener, and keeping the child’s environment as free from chemical fragrances as possible, parents can help reduce negative reactions that come from disturbing smells.

A Sensory Diet

A child’s sensory response to the events in his life might look like rejection, a lack of interest, aggression, hyperactivity, self-abuse, or low motivation. In fact, many of the behaviors generally attributed to autism, such as head banging, chewing on things, hand flapping, running around in circles, ramming into people, or biting come from sensory processing disorder – not autism. With the help of an occupational therapist, many of these sensory issues can be controlled or overcome through a sensory diet.

A sensory diet is an occupational treatment plan specifically designed to address an autistic child’s hypersensitivities and sensory-seeking behaviors. It provides an optimal amount of daily sensation, as well as the exact type of sensory stimuli a particular child needs. Effective sensory diets allow these children to feel calm and alert. They help the brain to organize and properly integrate incoming sensory data, and they enhance a child’s ability to do everyday tasks. A close evaluation of the plan’s effectiveness and a constant assessment of progress, so the program can be modified as needed, are essential to reduce negative behaviors and inappropriate reactions.

However, a parent’s role in generalizing and offering additional sensory experiences or lessening sensory avoidance outside of a clinical environment is also essential for success. Sensory toys, games, and other activities like jumping on a trampoline, swimming, or riding a bicycle, weighted vests and blankets, or being mindful of a child’s hypersensitivity to bright lights, touch, and smells must be continued at home in order for the treatment plan to have a lasting effect. An occupational therapist will make recommendations and teach parents what they can do to help throughout the day.

Related: Toys for Autistic Children

Additional Occupational Therapy Services

While most occupational therapies for autism focus on sensory dysfunction, finding ways to modify the child’s world is only a part of what a therapist does. Raising the quality of life for a child with autism also involves educating those in his environment about his particular sensory processing difficulties. An occupational therapist helps teachers, peers, and parents to understand how scrambled sensory data impacts the child’s daily activities.

Occupational programs handle all forms of daily living, including home, school, and community environments. While school-sponsored therapists deal mostly with school-related tasks like impaired motor functions, visual ability, and coordination, other therapists can give a more well-rounded approach, with additional occupational therapy services such as:

  • social and leisure skills
  • personal care skills (dressing, showering)
  • reasoning ability (problem solving)
  • feeding and eating ability (utensils, trying new foods)
  • home management skills (telephone use, chores)
  • stimming behaviors at home or on outings
  • home and community safety
  • vocational preparation
  • language problems (Related: Speech-Language Therapy for Autistic Children)
  • dysfunctions in communication

An occupational therapist helps individuals overcome or adapt to anything that is mentally, physically, developmentally, or emotionally disabling. They deal with recovery, which means they are particularly adept at finding ways to compensate for permanent loss of function – whether that is an adaptive mechanical device, or learning how to cope with the symptoms and deficits of autism. Treatment focus is always on finding ways to improve a person’s current situation. However, an occupational treatment plan also includes family, friends, neighbors, and instructors, so that all individuals affected by autism can have more productive, independent, and satisfying lives.

  • References
    • 1.Ayres, A. Jean. Sensory Integration and the Child: Understanding Hidden Sensory Challenges. Los Angeles, CA: Western Psychological Services, 2005. Print.
    • 2. Ayres, A. Jean. Sensory Integration and the Child: Understanding Hidden Sensory Challenges. Los Angeles, CA: Western Psychological Services, 2005. Print.
    • 3. Siri, Ken, and Tony Lyons. Cutting-Edge Therapies for Autism 2010-2011. New York, NY: Skyhorse Publishing, 2010. Print.
    • 4. Turkington, Carol. The Encyclopedia of Autism Spectrum Disorders. New York, NY: Infobase Publishing, 2007. Print.

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