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Using Occupational Therapy as a Treatment for Autism and Sensory Processing Disorder

As the mother of an Autistic teenager with Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) I have tried just about every therapy and treatment known to man to help my son. Many of these options were started when my son was very small, as early intervention is key to everything with Autism. One of said treatment options that we started is Occupational Therapy (OT).


What I have learned over time is that not everybody knows what OT is; either that, or they think of it as a “throw away therapy” that isn’t useful. Nothing could be further from the truth. Not only is OT a proven method of treating children with Autism, it can help children with other disorders as well. Let’s talk a little bit about this form of therapy.

What is Occupational Therapy?

Per The American Occupational Therapy Association, “Occupational Therapy practitioners are distinctly qualified to support productive and meaningful participation in community activities that enhance quality of life for individuals with Autism and their families.” It is noted that, “because of their expertise in activity and environmental analysis, Occupational Therapy practitioners are particularly skilled in using evidence-based strategies to address self-regulation and sensory needs, adaptive skills, motor development, mental health, social participation, and daily life skills.”

Basically, Occupational therapists work as part of a team that includes parents, teachers, and other professionals. They help set specific goals for the person with Autism. These goals often involve social interaction, behavior, and classroom performance. OT’s work adamantly to “promote, maintain, and develop” the skills needed by Autistic individuals to be functional in all required settings for their daily lives. Whether that be at home or at school. They want the individual to be able to be active participants in their own lives.

Per the Autism Network being an “active participant in life promotes:

-social interaction”

All things that OT addresses alongside SPD. Occupational therapists use a “holistic approach in planning programs.” As part of this approach they always consider the “physical, social, emotional, sensory and cognitive abilities and needs” of the Autistic individual. When the OT works with an Autistic individual they work to “develop skills for handwriting, fine motor skills and daily living skills.”

Using OT to treat Autism

Per WebMD, these are some of the skills Occupational Therapy may foster in an Autistic individual:
-Daily living skills, such as toilet training, dressing, brushing teeth, and other grooming skills
-Fine motor skills required for holding objects while handwriting or cutting with scissors
-Gross motor skills used for walking, climbing stairs, or riding a bike
-Sitting, posture, or perceptual skills, such as telling the differences between colors, shapes, and sizes
-Awareness of his or her body and its relation to Others
-Visual skills for reading and writing
-Play, coping, self-help, problem solving, communication, and social skills

They also note that by working on these skills with an Autistic individual during OT, a child with Autism may be able to:
-Develop peer and adult relationships
-Learn how to focus on tasks
-Learn how to delay gratification
-Express feelings in more appropriate ways
-Engage in play with peers
-Learn how to self-regulate

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OT does more than just that though. It is a wonderful tool in the treatment of Sensory Processing Disorder. Sensory Time and OT are almost always synonymous.

OT as an Approach to SPD

Of all the things that an OT does the most essential role they have is to “assess and target” an Autistic individual’s sensory processing disorders. It is noted in many publications that this is one of the most beneficial points of OT. It works to remove the barriers that they may have concerning learning and help the individual become serener and more engaged.

Sensory integration therapy as part of OT is “based on the assumption that the child is either over stimulated or under stimulated by the environment.” Therefore, the aim of sensory integration therapy is to improve the “ability of the brain to process sensory information.” This makes the aim of the therapy to help the child function better in his/her daily activities. In response to their sensory needs Autistic children are often prescribed a Sensory Diet by the OT’s.

What is a Sensory Diet?

The Autism Network points out that most of us “unconsciously learn to combine our senses (sight, sound, smell, touch, taste, balance, body in space), in order to make sense of our environment.” Children with Autism and SPD do not readily have this ability. They must work at it. A Sensory Diet is a specifically designed daily activity plan, not an actual nutritional diet (as some may at first think.) The aim of a Sensory Diet is to “infuse sensory activities throughout the child’s waking day in order to improve focus, attention and ensure the child is feeling regulated throughout the day.” They go further to note that, “just as the body needs the correct food evenly spaced throughout the day, so does the body need activities to keep its arousal level optimal.”

A Sensory Diet helps the child’s nervous system to feel better “organized and therefore assists the child’s attention and performance.” A qualified occupational therapist will use his/her “advanced training and evaluation skills to develop an effective Sensory Diet for the student to implement throughout the course of the day.”

What issues does a Sensory Diet address?

The effects of a Sensory Diet can be “immediate AND cumulative.” It helps to “restructure” an Autistic individual’s nervous system over time. Doing so makes it where the individual is better able to tolerate sensations/environments that they may have found challenging/distracting before. Sensory Diets also aid the Autistic individual by regulating their “alertness and increase their attention span.” It is noted that Sensory Diets also help to limit sensory seeking and sensory avoiding behaviors in Autistic children and teens. Doing so helps the individual be able to better handle transitions with less stress. Having such therapy helps the child to “focus on the task in hand, rather than for example being distracted by outside stimuli, such as, their shirt label rubbing on their neck or the smell of the hand cream, a noise outside and/or being bumped in the corridor.”

So, how does a parent obtain OT services for their Autistic child?

Per WebMD, “You can obtain Occupational Therapy services either privately, through a statewide early childhood intervention program, or at school. United States public law requires schools to provide certain types of Occupational Therapy to those who need it. United States private insurance companies also usually cover OT. In addition, Medicaid may cover Occupational Therapy for Autism, even for families with higher incomes.”

It is also noted that “School-based OT tends to be more functional in nature. Typically, it works as an adjunct to educational goals, such as improving handwriting, so the child can keep up by taking notes.” School-based OT can be done in a brick and mortar school building or in an homeschool program environment. If done so with a homeschool program, they will use an online teletherapy version of OT.