Physical 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.

One area of development for children with autism which is often overlooked is that of a child’s gross motor skills.  Movement is an important part of our lives because it allows us to explore our environment and interact with others.  From early infancy, children develop motor skills such as holding their head up, kicking their legs, sitting, crawling, etc.  As the child gets older, skills such as walking, jumping and balance come into play.  For children with autism, they may have difficulty coordinating these motor movements – which may make it difficult for them to explore and interact with others.

Children with autism may have difficulty with motor planning, sensory processing, reflex development and underlying decreased tone.  Motor planning includes the ability to time, sequence and execute a movement – such as reaching for an object or activating a toy.  Sensory processing occurs when a child has difficulty taking in and processing information from the environment.  The child may be over or under sensitive to sight, smell, sound, touch or movement.  Children with underlying tone issues may difficulty with motor movements , which will alter the sensory feedback they receive during movement (Redlich, 2010).

As a child with autism gets older, issues with more advanced motor planning skills may become evident.  These may include decreased protective reactions (catching yourself when falling), difficulty with balance and coordination, persistent “w” sitting, toe-walking, postural instability, etc.  (Redlich, 2010).

If issues with gross motor skills and coordination are noted, a physical therapy evaluation may be recommended.  During the evaluation, the physical therapist will assess the child’s ability to take in and process sensory input and assess the child’s ability to walk, jump, run, climb stairs, kick a ball, etc.  During play activities, balance and protective reactions and motor planning skills will be assessed.

Goals for physical therapy will vary from child to child, but typical gross motor goals include:

  • Improving postural control to increase stability
  • Improving balance and coordination
  • Improving the sequencing, timing and execution of motor planning
  • Increasing sensory processing and organization skills
  • Increasing gross motor coordination and planning to explore the environment and interact with others

If you suspect your child is having difficulties with their gross motor skills, please talk to your pediatrician or your child’s teacher to request a physical therapy evaluation.  To find one in your area, please visit the APTA (American Physical Therapy Association).

For more information about the motor connection and autism, please visit Kid PT.






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