Autism is a complicated neurodevelopmental disorder in which the brain does not seem to function properly. Children with autism typically have social interaction and communication impairments as well as restricted interests, activities, and play skills. Raising a child with autism is an enormous and often overwhelming task, but occupational therapy can help.
Occupational therapy can help children with autism perform better in school and home environments. Parents who are referred to occupational therapy practitioners often have concerns about the behavioral and social development problems their children with autism display in these environments, and practitioners can assist with these issues.
Although the behavioral and social difficulties that children with autism have are overtly displayed, many children also have sensory issues that are trickier to detect.
It is estimated that 80% of children with autism have sensory processing problems, which can often be the cause of social interaction and communication issues. This means that they canít filter out extraneous sensory stimulation or donít process sensory stimulation in the same way typically developing children do. Occupational therapy practitioners can address sensory issues and equip parents to manage their childís behavior more successfully.
Problems with sensory processing can explain why children with autism may not like noise, being touched, or the feel of certain clothing, which parents might be aware of, but nobody has linked together for them. Occupational therapy practitioners can clarify the role of sensory processing and provide advice on practical things parents can do, such as placing a weighted vest on a child if he or she needs calming. Occupational therapy practitioners also support positive behavior, aimed to help the childís social engagement, by imitating the childís actions, waiting for his or her response, positively responding to the child, and cuing appropriate social interaction to improve social play skills.
Children with autism can access occupational therapy most easily through schools because public law mandates its availability to students with disabilities who need it. In addition, many insurance plans cover private occupational therapy for children with autism, and because of the severity of the disability, many states offer a waiver that qualifies families with higher incomes to access occupational therapy using Medicaid dollars.
Children with autism usually receive occupational therapy in their schools as part of their educational program. Many also receive private occupational therapy, which may be covered by insurance or paid for independently. Often sensory-based, this active type of intervention focuses specifically on helping children integrate their sensory systems and initiate and sustain purposeful play. Therapy can involve swings, deep touch, massage, and numerous other methods. Therapy sessions always center on the child, incorporate play, are interactive, and provide activities that require the child to problem solve.
When creating an intervention plan, occupational therapy practitioners evaluate children with autism using observation and parent and teacher reports and also interview parents about their childís relationships and eating, self-care, and daily living skills.
In setting goals, occupational therapy practitioners work with families and teachers to address the most immediate and important issues, focusing on one or two or three priorities as a team. Typically, social interaction, behavior, and performance are priorities that can be addressed in a classroom setting. Whether practitioners modify the environment or engage in one-on-one therapy, their efforts serve the goals of the teacher and family. By collaborating with families, teachers, and other service providers, the occupational therapy practitioner strives to support academic success.
An important and often overlooked part of this team is siblings. When it comes to reinforcing goals, using siblings and typical peers is pretty effective with children with autism. Siblings can take leadership roles where they initiate and direct interactions. However, adults must address the potential effect such interaction will have on the sibling. Inviting the participation of sibling also fits well into sensory integration therapy, which is playful and often involves activities done in groups or pairs.
Families that include a child with autism often get to a point at which their lives revolve around that child. Parents of children with autism have enough anxiety about whether they do enough for their child. Occupational therapy supports the parents and helps them to be more effective, reinforcing the already good work that they do.