Occupational Therapy in Autism: Improving Lives One Skill at a Time

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Autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder that affects an individual’s ability to communicate, interact with others, regulate emotions, and carry out simple day-to-day activities. Autism is usually diagnosed in early childhood and without intervention, it can severely limit a person’s ability to live independently, maintain a livelihood, or foster meaningful relationships.

Occupational therapy assists people with autism to develop the necessary social, personal, and motor skills required to not only survive but thrive in the real world. With early intervention and assistance from occupational therapy activities, people with autism can overcome the limitations of their disorder and discover personal strengths to lead normal and happy lives.

 The Role of Occupational Therapy in Autism

Occupational therapists work with people of all ages and attempt to holistically understand an individual’s needs and develop customized treatment plans.

Each treatment plan is unique as each individual is affected by autism in a unique way. It is a spectrum of disorders that can have a major or minor impact on a person’s ability to enjoy their everyday lives.

It is important for autistic individuals to undergo an initial assessment with their occupational therapist. In this step, the therapist can make use of screening tools such as CARS – the Childhood Autism Rating Scale, an Autism Spectrum Disorder Checklist, or sensory profiles, to evaluate which skills the person needs help with the most and how these limitations are interfering with their basic needs. 

During this assessment, the occupational therapist can consider the following skills:

  • Social skills: This includes their behavior in the presence of other people, control over emotions, fidgeting, eye contact, tendency to isolate and withdraw from company, or the ability to read the room.
  • Motor skills: This involves balance, the ability to pick things up or walk straight, posture, and carrying heavy or light objects.
  • Communication skills: This can include verbal and nonverbal communication such as facial expressions, paralinguistics, or posture.
  • Sensory skills: These skills control the response and impact of different textures, lighting, tastes, and colors on a person’s mood or ability to perform certain tasks without being overwhelmed.
  • Cognitive skills: These include concentration span, distraction rate, ability to focus on what is required, and filter minor distractions out as background noise.

Based on the results of this evaluation, a customized occupational therapy plan is developed to cater to the specific limitations of each autistic individual. This plan can also utilize different ABA data collection methods which can help track progress and ensure interventions are tailored to meet their unique needs.

Main Objectives of Occupational Therapy for Autistic Individuals

The basic purpose of occupational therapy activities is to enhance independence in autistic individuals by making them capable of carrying out daily tasks and interactions with ease. Occupational therapists, as a result, work closely with people with autism to define customized objectives for each to suit their personal requirements. These goals can include:

Improving Sensory Integration

People with autism may get overwhelmed when all of their senses are stimulated – this means situations with loud noise, bright colors or different textures can agitate autistic individuals. It is important for people to learn how to develop sensory skills to navigate through life. 

Occupational therapists help enhance sensory integration in autistic individuals with the help of sensory integration therapy. This includes occupational therapy activities that require individuals to use all five of their senses – touch, taste, smell, hearing, and sight – all at once. This challenges the sensory receptors in autistic people and with time and practice, they learn how to integrate various sensory stimuli without being perturbed or overwhelmed.

Enhancing Fine Motor Abilities

Fine motor skills include the use of small muscles such as those in fingers and toes. Autistic individuals struggle with fine motor skills which limits their ability to write, eat with a fork and knife, or hold multiple small objects.

Occupational therapy activities target the coordination of small muscles, hand-eye coordination, and dexterity to improve the fine motor skills of autistic individuals. These skills greatly impact the ability of autistic individuals to carry out simple but necessary daily activities like buttoning up a shirt or typing a message. 

Developing Good Social Skills

Social interactions are an unavoidable part of the human experience. They are important for seeking help, learning something new, and fostering relationships. Individuals with autism struggle with understanding social cues, the emotions of other people, the impact of personal actions and expressions on other people, and effective communication.

Occupational therapists use various techniques such as social classes, focus groups, role-playing, and acting to develop the social skills of autistic individuals so they are not intimidated by social interactions, but learn to enjoy them. 

Practicing Daily Living Activities

ADLS – activities of daily living - are essential routine tasks related to self-care and hygiene. Autistic individuals face difficulty in completing personal care tasks like grooming, bathing or preparing a meal.

The goal of occupational therapy here is to allow autistic individuals to live independently. Occupational therapists teach strategies to autistic individuals to break down daily activities into smaller, manageable steps so they can maneuver them easily. Enhancing personal care skills plays a significant role in boosting confidence and self-sufficiency in autistic individuals. 

Benefits of Occupational Therapy in ASD

The main objective of occupational therapy in autism is to improve the quality of life of autism patients. People who stand on the autism spectrum find basic interactions and routine activities exceptionally challenging. It is crucial to intervene early and seek help so they can lead healthy, normal lives with ease and comfort.

Occupational therapy activities focus on enhancing the use of various skills to help individuals become independent in all stages of their lives. Some of the benefits of opting for occupational therapy are:

  • Sustaining a job or a career to become financially independent.
  • Doing well in academics and graduating high school or college.
  • Performing daily grooming activities like taking a shower and dressing up.
  • Bonding and connecting with other human beings and experiencing the bliss of good friendships and romantic relationships.
  • Experiencing the joy of having a pet and looking after it successfully.
  • Replacing constant anxiety with confidence.
  • Collaborating with others to achieve a joint objective or social target.
  • Not being  afraid to ask for help.
  • Not struggling to communicate their feelings or preferences in any given situation.

Conclusion

Autism is a developmental disorder that often manifests in limitations in performing routine activities, communicating with others, repetitive behaviors, and sensory overload. Occupational therapy in autism helps individuals become confident and independent by enhancing their social, fine motor, cognitive, sensory regulation, and self-care skills.

Autism is not a curable disease; it becomes part of an individual’s identity as they learn strategies and tricks to turn their autistic lifestyle in their favor. With occupational therapy, this outcome is possible and significantly improves the quality of life for autistic individuals.

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Motivator Spotlight Feature of the Month
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Christy Evanko, BCBA, LBA
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Motivity