Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) have a unique way of looking at the world and processing information. They can be passionate about their interests and creative thinkers. However, many children with ASD experience challenges with being independent, managing their emotions, processing sensory input, and connecting with their peers. Occupational therapists can help maximize your child’s unique strengths to allow them to better focus, interact and engage with their world.
What is occupational therapy?
Occupational therapy helps people of all ages be able to participate in all of the activities that make up their day. This can include everything from buttoning your shirt to taking notes in class. Occupational therapy works to help people to make the most of their strengths and allow them to do all the things they need and want to do within their day. To live a full, happy life we need to be able to do everything from brushing our teeth to playing games with friends. To accomplish this goal, occupational therapy may look at areas such as muscle strength and control, visual perception and visual-motor integration, sensory processing, functional cognition, and emotional regulation. They also look at what can be modified about the task (such as using an assistive device) or the environment (such as having a child study in a quieter room).
Who provides occupational therapy?
Occupational therapy is provided by occupational therapists (OTs). Occupational therapists are highly trained individuals- they must have a master’s or doctoral degree from an accredited university. They have to pass a national board certification test and be licensed in the state they are working in. OTs take annual continuing education courses to maintain their knowledge and skills.
Occupational therapists study development, and how the brain and bodywork. They are also experts at looking at adaptations that can be made, such as adding specialized equipment or changing how a task is completed, to make people as independent as possible. OTs tend to take a more holistic approach to problems- looking at the client, the tasks, and the environment.
How does occupational therapy benefit children?
Occupational therapists can address a number of issues that prevent children from growing and learning like they are supposed to. OTs focus on fine and visual motor skills, or the skills needed to manipulate small items or use our hands and eyes together. They also look at sensory processing skills, which refer to our ability to incorporate, interpret and make sense of various sensations. This can include vision, hearing, taste, touch, and smell, as well as awareness of our internal body processes (interoception), awareness of our body’s position in space (proprioceptive) and movement, and head position (vestibular). There are many different areas where occupational therapy can benefit your child.
Many children on the spectrum have difficulty with processing sensory input from their environment which can result in increased emotional dysregulation, outbursts, avoidance of specific tasks/places as well as difficulty focusing. For example, most of us don’t hear the slight buzz of fluorescent lights that are frequently found in schools. But some kids with sensory processing issues may be overly attentive to sounds in their environment and find it intensely distracting.
OTs are experts in sensory processing theory and interventions. An OT can help work with your child on strategies and modifications so they can better function during their day. This can often include identifying activities or tools your child can use throughout their day to help provide appropriate sensory input or minimize challenging sensory input to allow them to focus more during the day as well as minimize periods of overwhelm or meltdowns related to sensory triggers.
Emotional regulation can be another area that children on the spectrum may find challenging. Your child may have difficulty reading emotions in others and understanding their own intense emotions. Emotions may build up and often seemingly minor things may trigger intense emotional outbursts. For example, feeling frustrated by not being able to find a favorite toy may result in a long crying outburst. Or changes to their typical routine after school may cause your child to be angry and distracted all evening. OTs can work with children on identifying their emotions, role play understanding emotions in others, or set up strategies/tools for you and your child to regulate their emotions.
Fine Motor and Visual Motor Skills:
Children with ASD may also have difficulty or delays with fine motor and visual-motor skills. This can cause difficulty with shoe tying, messy handwriting, or difficulty playing with small toys. OTs can work on improving muscle strength and coordination, meet important motor milestones or adapt the way your child performs certain tasks.
OTs can also address any differences in the visual processing of information. Children who struggle with tasks such as copying sentences from the board, reading, and remembering letter formation may benefit from the intervention in this area. OTs can work at identifying the area of breakdown and provide support or accommodations to improve your child’s performance in this area.
Age-appropriate independence and self-help skills:
From dressing, toileting, feeding, bathing, and sleeping, OTs can help your child promote their independence and learn basic self-care skills. Children with ASD may need assistance reaching age-appropriate independence with these tasks.
As your child grows they should be able to complete age-appropriate tasks such as organizing belongings, remembering to finish assignments, and solving simple problems. OTs can help your child improve their ability to manage their life by teaching functional systems and adaptive techniques.
How does occupational therapy help children with ASD?
Occupational therapists commonly work with children with ASD. They can work on maximizing their unique strengths and improving their skills to allow them to become independent with daily tasks. Occupational therapists will often work closely with other healthcare providers to address your child’s needs and help them reach their goals. OT can be a very important member of your child’s team.
Who can receive occupational therapy?
You will find occupational therapists working with people across the lifespan. From infants to the elderly, occupational therapists work on maximizing independence to allow people to be able to do the things they need and want to do.
If you think your child may benefit from occupational therapy, you can speak with your primary care provider about receiving a referral for occupational therapy. Services are typically covered under most insurance plans but most clinics also accept private pay patients.
If you aren’t sure if OT can be beneficial, you can always contact The Therapy Place [Insert link], to speak with one of our knowledgeable staff on whether OT is the right fit for your child.
What are some signs my child may need OT?
- Struggles with age-appropriate self-help skills such as potty training or brushing their teeth
- Startles easily or cries at unexpected loud noises
- Hates to be messy, and are upset when their hands get sticky from glue or food
- Difficulty managing their emotions has strong reactions or losing control
- Handwriting is illegible or messy
- Difficulty with organization and following routines
- Always active, needs to constantly be moving, struggles to sit still
How long will my child need OT?
OT treatment is unique to each child’s needs so there is no easy answer to this question. While no one likes to hear it, “It depends” truly applies here. Some children may progress faster than others, or some children may have more goal areas identified.
At the initial session, your OT will perform a full evaluation as well as speak with you and your child about their needs. Your OT will work with you and your child to identify goal areas and set up a treatment plan. Regular progress reports will be completed to determine progress and evaluate if services are still needed.
While OT can be a crucial component of your child’s treatment team, the goal should always be to provide you and your child with the skills and tools to manage independently. A discharge does not mean that your child has reached their maximum potential. Most children (and their families) benefit from time away from therapy to practice their skills and allow time for development to occur. OT should be looked at as a useful tool to access as your child grows and the demands of their environment change.
What are other methods of treating symptoms of ASD?
There is no standard, single treatment for ASD. Children with ASD require individual treatment plans to address all of their needs. Many neurodivergent children benefit from a combination of services to address their needs and increase their independence. Other interventions may include:
- Speech and Language Pathology: Can address communication, social language, social skills, and other speech issues.
- Behavioral Therapists/ABA Therapy: Looks at particular behaviors and strives to increase positive behaviors and decrease unwanted behaviors.
- Education and school-based therapies: Can address issues related to accessing education. While valuable for helping your child succeed in school, it is often limited to school-related activities.
- Psychology: Can assess the mental health of a child and/or specific learning disabilities. They can also work with the family on managing stress and providing emotional support.
Occupational therapy can be a crucial addition to helping your child with ASD succeed and develop. They can work with many other services to address your child’s needs, maximize their strengths and increase their independence. If you have a child with ASD who is struggling in any of the areas above, don’t hesitate to reach out for more information or get them started in therapy.
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