The number of children diagnosed with autism continues to increase each year. Autism can impact a child in many different areas of life such as communication and social interaction and can have a considerable effect on a child’s participation and performance in the classroom. Children with autism often experience difficulty processing sensory information, and this can lead to feeling overstimulated (too much energy) or lethargic (difficulty maintaining attention), ultimately impacting academic participation and socialization with peers. When problems related to sensory processing occur in the classroom, children are more likely to experience acting out behaviors, lower self esteem, or withdrawn behavior. Aside from behavioral and speech/ language support, children with an autism spectrum disorder may also benefit from occupational therapy.
What is occupational therapy?
Occupational Therapy (OT) is a treatment modality designed to treat injured, ill, or individuals with developmental disabilities through the therapeutic use of everyday activities (American Occupational Therapy Association, 2018). Examples include: helping children with fine motor difficulties to learn to tie their shoes, grasp a pencil correctly, button their shirt, etc. Occupational therapy is usually sensory based, with interventions designed to help children develop awareness around their sensory systems and mange sensory input appropriately. Occupational therapy for children is often play-based, and hands on, and might involve deep touch, massage, use of a swings, stability balls, etc. based on the child’s sensory needs. Occupational therapy is particularly effective in not only helping children with autism to refine gross and fine motor skills, but to also filter information and manage environmental stimuli. Most individuals on the autism spectrum experience difficulty with sensory processing. Such children often report concentration difficulties in the classroom. This is due to the extra challenge they face of filtering out background noises, managing their own sensory needs, and ignoring classroom distractions in order to focus on the instructor. Participation in occupational therapy allows children with autism to manage sensory information more effectively with the use of specific strategies, ultimately increasing focus and regulation.
What are Occupational Therapists?
Occupational therapists (OTs) help individuals become proficient, independent, and successful at accomplishing everyday tasks, specifically when the individual has a disability (such as autism). Occupational therapists create activities designed to strengthen different muscle groups, improve coordination, and manage sensory input through the practice of everyday activities such as brushing teeth, tying one’s shoe, or writing. Occupational therapists are trained to understand the specific ways a disability may affect a child’s physical and emotional functioning or disrupt regular routines, and are able to tailor treatment goals to the individual needs of the child. Occupational therapists may work in many settings such as a clinic, hospital, or school. Occupational therapists work directly with the child and also build relationships with the parents, teachers, and any other treatment provider in the child’s life. Most Occupational therapists understand the importance of collaboration between treatment providers and will often develop goals related to behavior and social interactions that may be worked on at home and at school. Occupational therapists determine each child’s service time based on the child’s needs and the impact of their disability.
Children with Autism and Occupational Therapy
It is estimated that 80% of children with autism have sensory processing problems (American Occupational Therapy Association, 2018). Occupational therapy offers many benefits for children with autism ranging from improved attention, enhanced social problem solving and cooperation, improved emotional regulation, and/or increased independence in daily task completion.
When initially evaluating a child’s eligibility for occupational therapy, the Occupational therapist will observe the child participating in challenging motor tasks or in the setting where difficulties commonly arise. Data gathered from observation is then used to develop treatment goals, and will help the Occupational therapist to determine if goals should focus on attention and sensory regulation, social interactions, or developmental tasks. For children struggling to maintain attention in the classroom due to sensory dys-regulation, OT’s are able to suggest modifications to the child’s learning environment and strategies to use throughout the school day obtain sensory input appropriately. Examples include replacing a chair with a Bossa ball for children who have difficulty sitting still, playing a theraband between chair legs so children have a place to expend their energy without disrupting their peers, or providing children with visual reminders of strategies they can practice throughout the school day (ex:asking for a break, drinking water, taking deep breaths, hands to self, etc). Occupational therapists regularly consult with teachers and school staff to determine if suggested strategies are effective, or if new strategies could be implemented. Occupational therapists are also able to utilize play based interventions to assist children with improving social interactions. Examples include acting out common social challenges through role play or pretend play, determining behaviors that would be viewed appropriate and inappropriate by peers, and practicing socially acceptable regulation strategies (ex: hands to self versus touching peers). If a child’s difficulties arise during developmental tasks such as brushing hair or eating neatly, treatment activities will focus on practicing such activities until the child is able to perform task independently.
Accessing Occupational Therapy
Children with autism are entitled to free occupational therapy though their public school, via their IEP (Individualized Education Plan). Another option for occupational therapy includes private therapy through a clinic. Many insurance plans cover private occupational therapy if a child has a documented diagnosis of an autism spectrum disorder. If you are interested in learning more about options for accessing Occupational Therapy for your child with autism we would encourage you to contact the OAS center for more information at 619-431-5049