April is one very special month – It’s Autism Awareness Month AND Occupational Therapy (OT) Month all rolled into one! Occupational Therapy is often an integral therapy for children on the autism spectrum.
As an OT who works with primarily children with Autism Spectrum Disorders and Sensory Processing Disorders, I like to get involved as much as I can with supportive endeavors of the autism community. In doing so, I often seek to raise awareness about OT and what OT’s really do for the kids, big and small, with autism.
What Does Occupational Therapy Do?
OT’s work with individuals of all ages from cradle to grave. OT’s also treat just about any diagnosis whether it’s mental, physical or developmental.
Did you know that some OT’s conduct driving evaluations after someone has had a stroke to see if they able to drive safely?
Or that some OT’s work with hand injuries? They make splints and casts. They also provide exercises to increase the range of motion of fingers and wrists after surgery.
You could meet 20 OT’s and they would all be practicing something completely different. It is very similar to the fact that you could meet 20 individuals with autism and they could all present very differently.
Occupational Therapy: A Focus On Functional Excellence
Autism is such a unique diagnosis in that it has a wide spectrum from severe to mild to high functioning. What does all that mean? My thoughts are – It means whatever you want it to mean.
You see, in the world of Occupational Therapy, we look at functional skills.
Most parents want their children to excel at something. I always advise parents to take a step back, really look at their child and ask, “Which skill does my child excel in?”. Let’s take a peek at some of the children I have worked with.
I work with an 8 year old child with limited communication skills. He communicates primarily using repetitive language and scripting. However, he can put together the most amazing Power Point presentations and create DVD covers that are better than some of Pixar’s.
Another child I work with is 5 years old. He primarily communicates with scripts and specifically uses lines from favorite movies to communicate. However, he can play the piano just by listening to the music once. He plays with perfection without even watching the pianist or reading a piece of music.
There are many children on the autism spectrum who have great verbal skills and do exceptionally well academically, yet struggle with social skills.
When examining functional skills in these scenarios, I would highly encourage the 8 year old to engage in graphic design as an extra-curricular activity.
Explore More >> Art Therapy
I would push the parents to enhance the musicality of the 5 year old by providing him with creative musical outlets.
Explore More >> Music Therapy
For children who struggle with social skills, I would encourage social skill building related activities and seek out opportunities to further enhance his academic abilities.
Explore More >> Social Skills
Intent of Occupational Therapy for Children with Autism
Occupational Therapy can play an integral role in the treatment of children with autism throughout their developmental span, as long as it’s medically necessary or educationally relevant. Occupational Therapists may work on any of the following.
Activities of Daily Living
Some OT’s might focus on activities of daily living skills such as dressing, brushing teeth, eating, etc. in the early intervention years.
Explore More >> Tooth Brushing for the Orally Defensive
Other OT’s might focus on sensory integration to support children with autism or sensory processing disorders. We help these children to learn how to tolerate experiences that typically bother them to the point of a meltdown.
Explore More >> Sensory Discrimination Disorder
OT’s can teach children how to motor plan out an activity with appropriate sequencing and execution.
Explore More >> Motor Planning Requires Adequate Sensory Functions
Fine Motor Skills
School based OT’s often support school age children who may be struggling with fine motor skills. These OT’s may work with various handwriting papers, pencil grips, adaptive scissors and other strategies to help make fine motor work not as difficult.
Explore More >> Handwriting Solution Center
Still, other OT’s may work with the elementary age group. These OT’s, working with 8-10 year olds, provide a “tune up”. This tune up may involve teaching new and effective sensory strategies for the classroom environment. These OT’s may also work on developing social supports appropriate to their age.
Educate Parents & Teachers
OT’s are more often than not, educators. OT’s educate parents, passing the torch onto them to provide a daily home exercise program or sensory diet. Parents take the torch and teach their child how to manage new sensory issues, behaviors and situations that may arise. Teachers are also taught effective classroom strategies.
Explore More >> Ideas for Sensory Diets at Home
There are times when a child has reached their full potential at a specific stage in their life. At this point, they have to graduate from OT. However, they may re-visit OT in the future if it’s appropriate.
Occupational Therapy Motto
In the world of Occupational Therapy, our motto is “Living Life to the Fullest”. As your child grows and develops, he will continually learn new tools and strategies to help him along the way. Rest assured, he will grow into who he was intended to be – perhaps with a little help from Occupational Therapy along the way.