Occupational Therapy for Children with Autism

Helping hand

Occupational therapy (OT) for autism can be an integral part of a treatment plan. The specific activities in early intervention or advanced therapy cater to the individual's specific needs and levels of ability. Occupational therapy exercises for autistic disorders focus on developing skills that encourage independence in everyday activities.

Benefits of Occupational Therapy

Children who present with sensory, physical or speech issues can all benefit from receiving occupational therapy. According to WebMD, occupational therapy can help children with autism to:

  • improve balance
  • develop more coordination
  • learn body awareness
  • improve social interactions through play
  • enhance communication skills

Occupational therapy helps a child learn basic life skills and assist children in learning to adapt to new situations or transition between different activities, which can be a struggle for many children with autism. Children will also learn about how to delay gratification, to identify and regulate emotional responses and to focus on the task at hand.

How an Occupational Therapist Helps Autistic Children

An occupational therapist is a trained professional who helps people develop the skills necessary to function in home and work environments. The therapist completes an evaluation that determines if the individual has the appropriate skills for his age.

Therapists focus on the following skills:

  1. dressing
  2. grooming
  3. eating
  4. playing
  5. academic skills
  6. attention

Play is a very important aspect of this type of intervention for children as they learn many skills including social, communication, and self-help techniques. Engaging an autistic child in play activities requiring motor skills and interaction can be useful in speech therapy as well.

How Occupational Therapy Helps Children with Autism

Communication Skills

Autism treatments typically address a number of different skills through one activity. Speech and occupational therapy for autism are often combined to help the individual develop communication skills while adopting new self-help skills. Some common activities include:

Oral motor

  • Nuk brush
  • bubbles
  • whistles
  • stick out tongue
  • blow kisses

Preverbal imitation

  • bang drum
  • tap table
  • sign language
  • clap

Each activity encourages the development of skills necessary for communication while addressing self-help techniques in the process. Combining speech and OT exercises is a wonderful approach to creating a comprehensive treatment plan.

Sensory Integration

Autistic individuals often have a great deal of difficulty processing sensory input. This interferes with the ability to perform well and stay on task. Some OT exercises include multi sensory approaches to address sensory problems while developing self-help skills in the process. These exercises can be combined with speech therapy:

Gross motor activities

  • Run/walk
  • Walk backwards
  • Turn around
  • Tricycles

Processing movement (vestibular)

  • Trampoline
  • Swing
  • Slide

Balance (proprioceptive)

  • Sit on an exercise ball
  • Balance beam
  • stand on one foot

Fine Motor Skills

Each activity provides opportunities to develop important skills. For example, balancing on a ball can help a child sit properly in a chair while attending to a task. A speech therapist can work with the occupational therapy specialist to encourage communication. The patient may be asked to say "more swing" during a swinging activity. Speech and OT are not always addressed simultaneously; some individuals require interventions that focus on one skill at a time.

The development of fine motor skills is crucial to an individual's ability to perform well on daily living tasks. Occupational therapy for autistic people includes many activities that develop deliberate muscle movements in the hands. These activities require attention and hand-eye coordination:

  • Drawing
  • Coloring
  • Puzzles
  • Blocks
  • Beading
  • Clay
  • Musical instruments
  • Push buttons on toys
  • Puppets

There are many hands-on project ideas for individuals that develop fine motor skills. Activities like clay and putty address sensory needs while working on the muscles in the hands. Some of the fine motor activities address brain development as well.

Combining Sensory Integration and Fine Motor Skills

Sensory integration and fine motor skills can help an autistic person use both sides of the brain. Engaging in activities that involve more than one of the five senses is an ideal approach. When using fine motor activities, for example, the person engages both visual and tactile senses. Activities that involve cross-modal skills include:

  • Drawing large circles on a chalkboard
  • Putting pieces in a puzzle from left to right
  • Turning pages in a book

Any activity that requires reaching across the center of the body is a cross-modal action. These exercises engage both sides of the brain while developing important fine motor and gross motor skills. They also serve as wonderful pre-reading activities to train the person to move from left to right when completing tasks in the same sequence as reading.

Occupational Therapy for Adults with Autism

Adults in the autism spectrum of disorders benefit from OT exercises that stress safety awareness, self-care, and independent living skills. Computer activities and job-specific skills like cooking, programming, and working with animals are usually covered. Career planning can begin in early adolescence as parents create a transition plan for their teens.

Many autistic people struggle with everyday tasks. Occupational therapy for autism is a helpful resource that encourages developing life skills with the hope of increasing independence and self-reliance.

Occupational Therapy for Children with Autism