Autism and Occupational Therapy

by Howard Gerber on July 21, 2011

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Autism, or autism spectrum disorders, is used to describe a variety of developmental disorders and is usually diagnosed around the age of three. Because there are so many different conditions this broad term is used to describe, it may be difficult for patients of the “same” condition (or their parents) to understand why the occupational therapy regimes may differ so widely. It is important that occupational therapy be tailored to each individual patient, rather than a single regime be applied to all patients indiscriminately because each patient faces his or her own unique challenges.

The Role of Occupational Therapy in Autism Treatment

The initial role of the occupational therapist will be to evaluate and quantify the needs of the patient. If the patient is a child this information can be made available to teachers, family, and other caregivers so everyone involved in the child’s life can use the techniques to help implement therapeutic treatments.

Once a therapeutic plan has been created and goals have been outlined, the therapist will work with the child on his or her specific needs. This will usually happen in an office setting although some therapists work in schools or in the home. Periodic evaluation will continue to help identify skills that have been mastered and address additional skills that require additional attention.

Benefits of Occupational Therapy for People with Autism

There are a variety of skills that can be addressed in an occupational therapy environment. Typically, a therapist will decide on a specific set of goals to address first based on the initial evaluation.  As those skills improve, additional goals will be added based on additional evaluations. Some of the skills that may be addressed include fine motor skills, gross motor skills, sensory processing, and life skills.

Specific skills that are commonly addressed through occupational therapy include self-feeding and dressing, handwriting, running, climbing stairs, accepting new textures, and processing new sounds and images. However, it is important to note that not all people with autism will benefit initially from the assistance of an occupational therapist. For patients with a more severe form of autism it may be necessary to begin treatment with a physical therapist to address difficulties that may prevent advancement in an occupational therapy setting.

As an occupational therapist, do you find it difficult to explain the wide variety of needs a patient with autism may need to address? What do you find to be the most rewarding aspect of working with autism patients? Have you considered working only with autism patients?

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