Occupational & Speech Therapy for Neuro-divergence can make a world of a difference. Neuro-divergent children have unique ways of thinking that can make it difficult for them to function in their home, school, or community environment. Neuro-divergence can result from Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) or a host of other diagnoses. Although every child is expected to develop at their own pace, some children and young adults need extra support to reach their full potential. Pediatric occupational therapists (OTs) and speech therapists (SLPs) specialize in working with children from birth to 21 to improve a child’s ability to participate in daily activities.
Let us look at how occupational and speech therapy work together to support a neuro-divergent child.
Occupational and Speech Therapy Are Complimentary Services
Al Roker from the Today Show publicly stated how his Autistic son, Nick, showed improvement after receiving both occupational and speech therapy services. Research shows that Autistic children benefit from a combination of both therapies. A collaborative approach to therapy creates better outcomes for the child and their families. This collaborative, teamwork-focused approach is called interprofessional practice (IPP). An American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA) article states, “95% of speech therapists and audiologists participate in IPP because it improves patient and student outcomes.”
Ways Occupational and Speech Therapists Work Together
OTs and SLPs work together in many ways to address the unique needs of a child, but we will explore two.
Autistic children can have difficulty talking and understanding others. SLPs can recommend and teach a child to use an augmentative and alternative communication device (AAC) to improve a child’s communication skills. An OT can support AAC use by addressing a child’s difficulty with hand-eye coordination, visual perception, and fine motor control that may impair use of the AAC device. Using an AAC device gives a child language which increases the child’s ability to request assistance for self-care activities such as clothing management during potty training and convey feelings to promote emotional regulation.
Eating is a complex task consisting of getting the food to the mouth, chewing, and then swallowing. While this is something many of us do multiple times a day without thinking, a child may be delayed with their eating and feeding skills for many reasons. These delays can be caused by:
- Difficulty using eating utensils or finger feeding due to poor hand-eye coordination, poor fine motor skills, or poor executive functioning skills. An OT can work on hand-eye coordination, fine motor strength, and the upper body coordination needed to bring the food from the plate to the child’s mouth. The OT will also make recommendations as needed for adaptive feeding equipment. The OT and SLP will both work on planning and sequencing skills needed to complete this part of the task.
- Sensory processing difficulties can affect a child’s ability to tolerate food textures. This can result in a child gagging, vomiting, or refusing to eat. The OT and SLP will collaborate to determine which textures are appropriate for the child, considering additional medical circumstances. The OT will use evidence-based sensory integration techniques to increase the child’s tolerance to food textures.
- Difficulties swallowing food due to weak or poorly coordinated muscles. A child with these challenges can choke and is at risk for aspiration. An SLP will make recommendations for food textures and facilitate exercises to increase safety when swallowing.
Self-regulation is an important building block for maintaining future relationships as well as managing emotions. A child without language may have more difficulty with self-regulation due to a higher level of frustration resulting from not having their needs met. A child with sensory processing difficulties will have self-regulation difficulties if they are not able to physically remove themselves from poorly tolerated environmental stimuli. SLPs help provide a means for language and OTs help to identify sensory stimuli that are difficult for a child. Both SLPs and OTs teach and support the child with self-regulation techniques that are safe.
Although OTs and SLPs both have their areas of specialty, they do work on some common skills such as:
- Social Skills
- Executive functioning
- Motor planning
This overlap in skills is especially seen during early intervention services (EI).
Occupational and Speech Therapy Are an Important Part of Early Intervention Services for the Neuro-divergent Child.
Occupational and Speech Therapy are an important part of early intervention services for children birth to age 3. The CDC states, “Early intervention services can change a child’s developmental path and improve outcomes for children, families, and communities.” Early intervention (EI) services support both the child as well as their families and caregivers. EI can be especially important for the neuro-divergent child with ASD.
Since developmental skills are like building blocks, EI allows families to work with specialists such as OTs and SLPs to improve the foundational skills needed for future communication and participation in daily activities. As with all therapy services, therapists work with the child and family to create a treatment plan specific to that child’s goals and unique needs.
Occupational and Speech Therapy Improves a Variety of Skills
OT and SLP services use fun and functional activities to help neuro-divergent children gain important skills. Treatment activities have a child-centered focus and are designed to create positive experiences. Therapy results can vary based on the child, but a successful course of treatment can provide results in many areas. Improvements can typically be seen with:
- Self-care skills such as getting dressing, going to the bathroom, and self-feeding.
- Home skills such as completing chores.
- Play skills such as building with blocks, completing puzzles, and engaging in pretend play.
- Social skills such as playing with other children and interacting with family members in meaningful ways.
- Communication skills such as the ability to communicate with spoken words, Sign Language, and with an AAC device.
- Thinking skills such as activity planning, problem-solving, and sequencing.
- Academic engagement such as improved ability to focus on learning tasks, improved handwriting and cutting skills, and improved ability to transition from one learning task to another.
Improving skills has a positive effect on a child in many ways.
- Increased social network
- Increased life opportunities
Find Occupational and Speech Therapy Services
The search for a qualified professional to meet your child’s unique needs can be overwhelming. Fortunately, The Therapy Place has occupational and speech therapy services available to help your child of any ability reach their full potential for the most success in their daily life. Check out our website for more information. Our team of skilled, caring clinicians looks forward to working with you and your child.
Check out our youtube video on occupational & speech therapy within autism!
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