Occupational therapy is an effective means of improving cognitive, social, and motor skills in children with autism. Read this article to learn more about occupational therapy and how it can help children on the spectrum reach their full potential.
What Is Occupational Therapy?
Occupational therapy (OT) is a type of intervention that supports people with injuries, disabilities, and other conditions, including autism. The main goal of occupational therapy is to improve the patient’s quality of life and allow participation in a wide range of activities.
Occupational therapy for autism
Occupational therapy can help improve many different aspects of daily life in children and young people with autism, such as:
- Daily living skills (brushing teeth, bathing, dressing)
- Understanding boundaries and personal space
- Social skills
- Promoting safety awareness
- Dealing with transitions and expectations
- Regulating emotional response to sensory overload
- Supporting adolescents’ transition into adulthood and helping them build the necessary skills to enter the workforce
Strategies used in occupational therapy
Common approaches used by occupational therapists who work with children with autism include:
- Sensory integration and sensory-based strategies
- Sensory diet (activities like playing with sensory toys)
- Emotional development and self-regulation strategies and programs
- Organizing peer groups, social participation, and play activities
- Working on motor skills
- Cognitive behavioral approaches to support positive behaviors.
Occupational therapy is always highly individualized to suit the needs of each child. For example, while some children may only have to work on their independence when it comes to activities of daily living, others may need to improve their sensory self-regulation skills or motor development.
In the following section, we take a look at how occupational therapists evaluate children in order to create a personalized treatment plan.
Occupational Therapy Evaluation
An occupational therapist starts by observing how a child performs age-appropriate tasks and interacts with the environment. During the evaluation, the therapist will consider the following aspects of the development:
- Emotional regulation
- Responses to touch or other types of stimuli
- Gross motor skills such as posture and balance
- Fine motor skills like manipulating small objects
- Social interactions
- Interactions between the child and caregivers
- Transition to new settings or activities
- Play skills
- Need for personal space
- Attention span and stamina
- Aggression and other types of negative behaviors
In addition, the therapist will identify any obstacles that prevent the child from participating in typical day-to-day activities, such as sensory sensitivities, communication issues, restricted interests, and motor skill delays.
Tools used in OT evaluation
Common tools used to evaluate children’s performance in occupational therapy include:
- Screening tools, for example, an autism checklist
- A sensory profile, a standardized assessment that evaluates how a child responds to sensory stimuli, such as touch, sound, sight, taste, and smell.
- Childhood Autism Rating Scale (CARS), a standardized rating scale that assesses the severity of autism spectrum disorder
- Diagnosis criteria as per the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V)
After completing the evaluation, the therapist will work with the child and caregivers to set treatment goals and develop an individualized intervention plan. Children are often expected to practice target skills also outside of therapy sessions, both at home and at school.
Occupational therapy strategies
Occupational therapy combines a variety of activities that may help children on the spectrum respond better to their environment, such as:
- Developmental activities (brushing teeth, combing hair)
- Physical activities to help a child develop coordination and body awareness (stringing beads, doing puzzles)
- Play activities to improve interaction and communication
- Adaptive strategies to help them navigate day-to-day life (planning, organization, coping with stress)
How Long Is an Occupational Therapy Session?
Occupational therapy typically consists of half-hour to one-hour sessions provided one to two times a week. The number of weekly sessions is based on the child’s needs.
Who Provides Occupational Therapy?
Occupational therapy is provided by a licensed occupational therapist (OT) who has a master’s degree and has passed a national certification exam from the National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy. In addition, occupational therapists must obtain a state license. A pediatric occupational therapist specializes in working with children from infancy through adolescence.
Therapy services are sometimes provided by an occupational therapy assistant (OTA) who holds an associate’s or bachelor’s degree and is trained and supervised by a certified OT. Occupational therapy assistants work directly with children to help them practice their skills and work towards goals determined in the treatment plan.
Is Occupational Therapy Covered by Insurance?
Occupational therapy is often covered by health insurance. However, a doctor must indicate that this type of therapy is medically necessary for health insurance to provide coverage.
In addition, there are two other ways to receive occupational therapy: through the Individualized Education Program and Early Intervention Program.
Occupational therapy through IEP
Children with autism may receive occupational therapy as part of their Individualized Education Program (IEP) at school. OT is often included in IEPs as a related service and incorporates goals related to learning. Occupational therapy services that are written the IEP are provided to families at no cost.
Occupational therapy through Early Intervention Program
Young children with autism can also receive occupational therapy through their Early Intervention. This program is offered in each state to children up to age 3 who are not developing as expected. These services are either free or low-cost, depending on the family’s income.
Occupational therapy is an essential tool in treating children with autism. Here’s what you need to know when choosing your occupational therapy provider.
Questions to Ask Before Beginning Occupational Therapy
Before beginning therapy, it’s important to consider asking some key questions to ensure that you are prepared and have a clear understanding of what to expect.
- What are the goals of the program?
- What skills will therapy help my child with?
- How will it help with sensory issues?
- What type of activity evaluation do you do?
- How will you account for my child’s strengths and weaknesses?
- What is the involvement of my child in choosing activities? Can they choose activities that they find interesting?
Occupational and other therapists
- How long have you been working as an OT?
- Will you be working directly with my child?
- How many other occupational therapists work with my child?
- Will you collaborate with other professionals, for example, speech-language pathologists, psychiatrists, or other specialists?
- Where will services be provided?
- How often will therapy sessions take place?
Reporting and progress
- How will you measure my child’s progress?
- What type of notes do you take during therapy? Will I get access to them?
- How will I know that my child is responding to therapy?
- What is the role and involvement of the family in this process?
- What other interventions may work well for my child in combination with occupational therapy?
Occupational therapy is a highly beneficial tool for helping children with autism integrate sensory processing activities and practice various skills to use in activities of daily living. The main goal of an occupational therapist is to provide the child with the tools necessary to thrive in multiple environments. Optimal outcomes are seen when there is consistency between therapy and daily routines and when children are given the possibility to continually learn and practice their skills.
If you are ready to work with the best ABA therapy provider in New York, New Jersey or Indiana, give us a call at (732) 402-0297. Our dedicated team is ready to help and we will treat you like family.
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