How Occupational Therapy Can Help Children with Autism

Kristen McGurrin and Alexandra Delayo
Occupational therapy for kids with Autism

Occupational therapists (OTs) help people of all ages actively and purposefully engage in their daily lives. OTs work with each patient to assess their needs and determine the best path to develop, modify, adapt, or regain skills that are challenging because of their limitations. Pediatric occupational therapists help children and adolescents learn and develop the skills that they need to successfully function in the world as adults. Pediatric OTs often work with children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) to help them access their natural environments with greater ease, increase their independence, and improve their ability to take part in activities that are meaningful to the child and family.

Sensory Concerns

Children on the autism spectrum often present with sensory modulation difficulties or sensitivities, meaning they can have challenges processing sight, sound, touch, taste, smell, body position, and balance. This impacts a child’s ability to perform routine activities, such as brushing teeth, engaging with family at dinnertime, or participating in recess at school.

A simple task like brushing your teeth seems routine to many people, but to children with ASD, these menial tasks can be overwhelming due to their sensory challenges. Using a variety of strategies and techniques, including a sensory-integration-based approach, OTs help the child and family identify challenges and use age-appropriate methods that teach regulation and skill acquisition and help them to be successful in completion. 

Setting goals

Some of the goals an OT may work on with a child with Autism Spectrum Disorder include but are not limited to:

  • understanding boundaries and personal space
  • playing and social participation skills
  • keeping a safe body
  • performing daily living skills such as brushing teeth, bathing, or dressing
  • creating schedules to assist with transitions and expectations
  • using sensory diets to assist in regulating and modulating input around them which may include use of a weighted blanket, pressure vest, noise cancelling headphones, etc.
  • being aware of their safety and providing strategies to aid in safety awareness
  • self-feeding and increasing food variety for picky eaters

Individualized treatment

Occupational therapy is a holistic and individualized treatment that assists each patient in reaching and maintaining their full potential to live a happy and successful life. In an occupational therapy evaluation, goals are determined based on the specific child. It is very important to understand what challenges and limitations are impacting a child’s activities and how to assist them in successfully engaging in their daily lives. Occupational therapists also help children reach their full potential through the joy of play. Using a play-based model to learn daily skills makes learning fun and motivating, and the child often does not even realize they are working hard.

An OT’s goal is to provide the child and family with the tools necessary to be successful in all environments. Caregivers often see optimal outcomes in children with ASD when there is consistency between therapy and daily routines; children can continually learn essential motor, daily living, and social skills as they develop into functioning adults.

Learn more about our pediatric outpatient rehabilitation services available at Hasbro Children's Hospital or Bradley Hospital.

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