The overall goal of occupational therapy is to enhance a person’s ability to perform everyday tasks to improve daily life. Occupational therapy helps someone with autism to better respond and process the information relayed to them through their senses.

An occupational therapist will work directly with families, teachers, medical providers, and caregivers to determine specific goals and timeframes for completing these goals during therapy.

Challenges of Autism

ASD (autism spectrum disorder) is a neurodevelopmental disorder that impacts communication, social skills, and behaviors. Autism is also a spectrum disorder that ranges in severity and disability level.

Low-functioning autistic children can struggle to care for themselves. This means they may be unable to toilet independently, dress or feed themselves, or communicate verbally.

General Goals of Occupational Therapy

Occupational therapy (OT) is an intervention commonly used to help people with autism function in their daily lives. It is also used to treat people with other developmental disorders or issues.

Occupational therapy goals will vary from person to person and be based on the severity of the disability. Common overarching goals of OT can include:

  • Learning how to feed oneself.
  • Going to the bathroom independently.
  • Dressing oneself.
  • Personal grooming skills and habits.
  • Improving motor skills.
  • Communicating more effectively with both verbal and nonverbal methods.

Occupational therapy can also help someone with autism better relate to others and their environment. The therapy can assist autistic people by teaching them how to understand what their senses are telling them and how to use that information.

One of the primary goals of occupational therapy for autism is to increase self-reliance and independence to improve overall quality of life.

Specific Goal Setting in Occupational Therapy

Life is made up of a series of daily activities or occupations. Occupational therapy focuses on socializing, playing, and learning to help a child with autism have more success in these activities.

OT can help with:

  • Self-care skills.
  • Play and social abilities.
  • Learning strategies.
  • Sensory regulation.
  • Behavior.
  • Body awareness.
  • Problem-solving skills.

Occupational therapy will typically begin with an evaluation to determine how a person interacts with the world around them, takes care of themselves, learns, socializes, communicates, and plays. This can help to determine individual goals.

Specific goals will depend on the individual’s struggles. Examples include:

  • Set a daily routine.
  • Stick to a sleep schedule.
  • Learn how to write, cut with scissors, and color.
  • Play games cooperatively.
  • Choose an appropriate toy.
  • Learn how to decrease anxiety.
  • Enhance self-regulation abilities.
  • Better focus on tasks.
  • Manage transitions.
  • Perform better in a classroom setting.

Occupational therapy uses play and sensory techniques in an interactive format that caters to a child’s strengths while helping to improve areas of weakness . Sessions often utilize problem-solving skills and activities designed to engage a child.

OT sessions can include various activities, such as using zippers, stringing beads, playing with sand or play dough, jumping rope, dancing, and swinging on playground swings. Other creative, interactive, and sensory-engaging activities are used to improve life skills.

Timeframes for Occupational Therapy for Autism

Occupational therapy can be offered in a variety of settings, including in the home, at school, and in a clinical setting. Sessions are typically between 30 and 60 minutes, and can be offered multiple days a week as needed.

The more time put into occupational therapy, the better the outcome. It can often take time for new habits to be built. It also takes time for a client to put what is being learned during sessions into practice in everyday life.

As a result, the timeframe for expected results from occupational therapy differs based on the individual’s goals and level of disability. Someone who needs help with basic self-care skills can expect a longer treatment timeline than a child learning how to use scissors properly.

The earlier a child begins therapy to manage autism, the more adaptable they are and the quicker results are likely to be seen. The brains of young toddlers are more malleable than those of older children or adults.

Because of this, occupational therapy will produce changes sooner in younger children who are higher functioning. Adults who are receiving OT for the first time will take longer to adapt to the new skills than children who start therapy young.

OT for Every Age & Level of Disability

Occupational therapy can benefit someone with autism regardless of their age or level of functioning.

Sessions will look quite different based on the client’s age and level of disability. Young toddlers and children will be engaged through play and sensory integration models, for example, while adults can receive help in learning how to function in the workplace and live as independently as possible.

Occupational therapy is often part of an educational program provided through public schools . For school-aged children in a school setting, OT typically focuses on how to support the child’s education and help them perform better in the classroom. OT will work to improve things like handwriting, peer interactions, and managing transitions, as well as remove possible barriers to learning.

OT is regularly covered by health insurance. Private sessions are often able to focus more on self-care and independence.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that while there is no single treatment or cure for autism, early interventions and a variety of therapy types, including occupational therapy, can greatly improve symptom management.

The Benefits of Getting Care From a Professional Occupational Therapist

Occupational therapy can often be provided right in your home — in an environment that is comfortable for your child. Resistance to change is a common sign of autism. As a result, working in a familiar environment can often yield more positive results.

Occupational therapy won’t be the only form of therapy your child receives. Applied behavior analysis (ABA) therapy is considered the primary treatment for autism, so it’s likely your child will engage in that therapy. They may also receive speech therapy, if needed.

Occupational therapists can work with other medical and mental health treatment providers to develop a comprehensive care plan. OT can play a big role in personal health and growth, and improvements will often be seen in other areas of life due to OT.

Parents, caregivers, and even siblings can help an autistic family member practice skills learned in occupational therapy. While family members can promote and reward desired behaviors, these skills should be initially taught and introduced by a trained professional.

Occupational therapy can be provided by either an occupational therapist or an occupational therapy assistant (OTA) who works under the direction of a licensed occupational therapist. Occupational therapy practitioners must have a college degree and pass a certification exam.

More Time Equals Better Results

Occupational therapy skills take time to learn, and the skills are solidified with more practice.

Again, early treatment is critical. It is proven that early intervention and more time spent in therapy at a young age can produce positive results, but the specific therapy and the amount of time needed are highly individual.

Long-term therapy will generally produce the best outcomes . The time requirements of therapy will also evolve as a child ages, and needs can change over time. A child may start out needing more hours initially, and then taper the number of hours as they age and learn new skills. Transitional young adults often require more therapy time again as they learn how to navigate the shift into adulthood.

An occupational therapist will work with each family directly to decide how much, and which types, of therapy will best benefit the individual and provide the greatest benefit for managing autism symptoms. Young children often benefit from almost full-time therapy, in a variety of modalities, in order to see the greatest improvements.

If you think occupational therapy would benefit your child, talk to your child’s pediatrician or other specialist. Your child may already be in ABA therapy, so you can also ask your ABA provider if they think occupational therapy would be a good addition to your child’s treatment regime.