Autism and Occupational Therapy: 5 Developmental Skills Improved Through OT Services


Occupational therapy is often recommended for children on the autism spectrum. Children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) commonly struggle with developmental skills that occupational therapists address. But what skills do OTs work on, and what intervention strategies to OTs use when they are working with children with autism?

Autism and occupational therapy: 5 Developmental Skills Improved Through OT Services

As an occupational therapist who works with individuals with autism and other developmental disabilities, I have had the privilege of supporting many clients as they explore and discover their interests, abilities, and career aspirations. Occupational therapy is an evidence-based practice that uses activities to improve function in daily life. Pediatric occupational therapists use therapeutic activities to improve the child's ability to function at home and in school.

In this article, we will discuss 5 developmental abilities improved with pediatric occupational therapy services. OTs use several different intervention strategies OTs use when working with children with autism.

Autism and Occupational Therapy: 5 Developmental Abilities Improved with OT

Here are five developmental areas occupational therapists can improve with children with autism.

Self-Care Activities

One of the most common reasons people with autism are referred to occupational therapy, especially as they get older, is related to self-care skills. Many individuals with autism are delayed in learning how to do things like using the bathroom or dressing.

If you have a child who is delayed in learning self-care skills, occupational therapy can be a huge help. An occupational therapist uses a technique called activity-analysis to determine what underlying issue is causing the delay or difficulty. This can be many different things and then the OT will develop a plan to address them.

Fine Motor Development

Fine motor skills are the movements we use when we are using our hands to make things like writing, tying shoes, or building with Legos. Many children with autism have delayed or inefficient fine motor skills.

Fine motor refers to your fingers and hand strength, which are essential when tying shoes, buttoning shirts or holding a pencil correctly. If your child struggles with any of these activities, your occupational therapist may recommend fine motor activities to help with dexterity.

If your child is behind in developing efficient fine motor skills, there are lots of different activities your occupational therapist may use. These activities will strengthen muscles or improve coordination depending on your child's needs.

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Sensory Processing Difficulties

Sensory processing is the way we interpret the information we receive from our senses through our bodies. Some individuals with autism experience sensory processing challenges that affect their ability to function in daily life.

Sensory processing and sensory integration activities can be very individualized, but there are a few common ones.

For example, a few sensory diet activities may include: if your child is sensitive to sounds, your OT may suggest using earplugs or noise-canceling headphones. For children who are sensitive to touch, wearing sensory-sensitive clothing or receiving deep pressure massage.

Social Skills

Social skills can be challenging for many autistic children, particularly those who have communication delays. If your child is struggling with any aspect of social skills, like making friends, having appropriate conversations, or understanding nonverbal communication, occupational therapy is a great place to start.

Occupational therapists work on social skills by improving joint attention, focus, play skills, and turn-taking skills. They may also use social skills groups and group therapy activities.

Social stories are another intervention that can be helpful for social skills. Social stories are like picture books that share information about a specific situation or skill with pictures, words, and visuals.

Organizational Activities

If you are a parent of a child with autism, you probably know that it can be difficult to keep your house or car organized. This can be caused by a number of factors, including sensory challenges, poor attention to detail, and difficulty with prioritizing tasks.

Organizational interventions are generally done with an occupational therapist and parent together to help support the whole family. Some of the most evidence-based interventions include visual cues, such as color-coding, and task lists. Visual cues can be anything from color-coding your child’s desk to putting a picture on a bookshelf to show what belongs there.

Final Thoughts

Occupational therapists work to improve so many developmental skills when working with children and families. This is in no way an exhaustive list.

OT is a field that is constantly evolving and adapting to new research and best practices. This means that OT has the ability to adapt to the unique needs of each child and family. Occupational therapists are trained to break down activities into their parts. I call this our “superpower”. If you are not sure why your child does something. Just ask your OT.


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