Autism: The benefits of Occupational Therapy
Occupational therapy has been proven to have benefits for people with autism. A person who has autism spectrum disorder can have trouble communicating with other people. This can limit their interactions, activities and play skills for children.
Research has shown occupational therapy can help youngsters with autism to develop these skills at school and in the home. An occupational therapist will work as part of a team including teachers, parents and other health professionals, who will set specific goals, helping the person with autism to overcome the challenges of communicating and interacting, by developing simple strategies.
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What is an occupational therapist?
An occupational therapist will provide help and support for people whose health stops them from doing the activities that are important to them. Occupational therapy can assist people with practical tasks if they are physically disabled, or have mental health problems.
They can also help people who have learning disabilities, who are recovering from an operation, who are getting over an illness, or who are simply getting older. They will work with people of all ages, helping with any aspect of daily life at home, at school, or in the workplace.
How can this help someone with autism?
People with autism are often slower to interpret the inputs coming from their senses, which makes their processing speed slower. Specialists say this may help to explain why children with ASD can be subject to “meltdowns” – they can struggle to screen out irrelevant information, as they lack the appropriate “filters”. This can lead to a meltdown, as the inputs continue to build up, but are not filtered out. The child may be still processing an earlier noise, while trying to process new inputs from the teacher and other pupils. This is referred to as sensory overload and can lead to withdrawal, challenging behaviour, or complete shutdown.
An occupational therapist can help devise simple strategies to use at school or at home, to aid the sensory filters.
How does this benefit a child?
Targeting the sensory system and adding filters can help a child to become better organised, while assisting their attention span and performance. This can enable young people to improve their communication and learn new skills.
First, the occupational therapist needs to gather information on the child, to develop a bespoke programme – there is no “one size fits all”, as every single person is different. Structured, individualised care has been shown to work best, in particular when it begins from a young age.
Occupational therapy can combine several strategies to help a child to respond better to their environment. These can include physical activities to help the child develop better coordination and play activities to help improve interaction. It also includes developmental activities, such as combing hair and brushing teeth, and adaptive strategies to help the child to cope with transitions.
How does a parent know if this will benefit their child?
The therapist will observe the child to see if he or she can do the tasks expected of them at their age. This can include everyday activities, such as getting dressed or playing a game. The therapist will arrange to have the child video-recorded during the day, to see how they behave in their usual environment.
They will see how the child interacts with people around them to determine what kind of care will best help. The therapist will study their attention span, how well they transition to new activities, their general stamina, playing skills and whether they need personal space.
They will also study the child’s response to touch and other stimuli; their motor skills including balance, posture, or the manipulation of small objects; whether they exhibit aggression; other types of behaviour, and how they interact with caregivers. This will ascertain how the occupational therapist can help the child.
What’s the next step?
If you’re interested in contacting an occupational therapist in relation to helping your child, there are a number of ways of doing this. You can get occupational therapy free of charge through the National Health Service or via social services, depending on your situation.
Contact your local council to enquire if you can get occupational therapy, speak to your GP’s practice for a referral, or you can pay for it yourself. Contact the Royal College of Occupational Therapists to find qualified and registered therapists in your area.
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