Occupational Therapy and Autism

Autism is a complex developmental disability. Recent studies show that 1 in every 88 children is diagnosed with autism.  Autism is different for every child and can range from mild to severe – which is why it’s termed autism spectrum disorders.

Occupational therapy is defined as “skilled treatment that helps individuals achieve independence in all facets of their lives.  Occupational therapy assists people in developing the ‘skills for the job of living’ necessary for independent and satisfying lives.”  Since play is the job of childhood, occupational therapy is important for children with autism because it not only helps them focus on becoming independent during daily activities (e.g. dressing, eating, etc), but it also helps them interact and play with others in their environment.

According to the AOTA (American Occupational Therapy  Association, Inc), occupational therapists work with children with autism to address the following:

  • Determine if he or she has accomplished developmentally appropriate skills needed in the areas of grooming, play and leisure
  • Provide interventions to help the child respond to information coming through their senses
  • Provide developmental activities, sensory integration or sensory processing play activities
  • Facilitate play activities to encourage the child to interact with others
  • Develop strategies to help the child transition from one setting to another, from one person to another and from one life phrase to another
  • Collaborate with the child and family to identify safe methods of community mobility
  • Identify, develop or adapt equipment needed in order to participate in daily activities that enhance the child’s life and functional skills

Many children with autism also experience difficulty with sensory processing skills.  Sensory processing disorder (SPD) is a difficulty or difference in the brain’s ability to receive and process sensory stimulation from the body and the environment.  It is a neurological disorder where the connections in the brain appear to be too strong, too weak, or mis-wired – resulting in difficulty participating in normal daily activities.

Children with sensory processing disorder take in and process sensory information differently than the general population.  Normal sensory events and information are often reacted to in and under or over-responsive manner.  The senses impacted by SPD include our 5 senses of sight, sound, taste, smell, and touch.  It also includes 2 lesser-known senses including the proprioceptive and vestibular systems.

The vestibular system is related to the inner ear, and processes our body’s position in space and sense of movement.  How we react to swinging, roller-coasters, or being upside down is determined by the vestibular system.

Proprioception is the body’s sense of placement in relation to itself and the environment and is sent to the brain through receptors in joints and muscles.  Proprioception is the ability to close your eyes and know what position your arms and legs are in.  Children with proprioceptive problems often have uncoordinated motor skills and frequently trip and run into objects.  Many children with SPD often crave this proprioceptive input and are constantly prefer wrestling, jumping, and squishing activities that makes them feel secure by being aware of their bodies.

Occupational Therapy (OT) is the therapy domain that primarily treats SPD.  A sensory processing evaluation is done with a child and it is determined which senses are impacted and how it affects the child’s daily functioning.  Each system is examined and it is determined which senses are hyper-responsive or under-responsive.  Most children have a mixture of both, depending on the sensation.  Children with SPD usually have trouble with eating (picky eaters), dressing (tolerating the feel of certain clothing), play (avoiding messy textures, fear of movement, or playing too rough), and transitioning between activities and to different environments.

Treatment for SPD includes working with the child’s parents to create a Sensory Diet, which is a program designed for that child to provide his/her body with the sensations they need or crave to function optimally while also slowly and systematically exposing them to the sensations they do not tolerate well to desensitize their nervous system.  Through OT, we can actually re-wire those brain connections so children can function more effectively in their daily lives.

For more information on occupational therapy and sensory processing disorder, please visit these sites:

AOTA Autism Webpage

Sensory Processing Disorder

Sensory Integration Network

Sensational Brain

If you suspect your child may have a sensory processing disorder, or could benefit from occupational therapy, please talk to your child’s pediatrician or school to request an occupational and sensory processing evaluation.




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