Many children who are on the autism spectrum have difficulty sorting through and interpreting all of the data their senses are sending them, which can make fine motor skills difficult. In addition, the social difficulties that autism presents mean children on the spectrum may spend less time developing their motor skills through play with classmates and other children.
For these reasons, occupational and physical therapists can play an important role in supporting the growth and development of children with autism. So make sure you have considered adding these professionals to your child's support team.
What's the difference between occupational therapy and physical therapy?
There is some overlap between these areas; they both deal with sensory integration (helping your child learn to sort through stimuli and be aware of their body) and motor skills. Physical therapists generally work more on gross motor skills, improving a child's overall coordination and balance. Occupational therapists work more on fine motor skills, helping a child with everyday tasks like writing, dressing, doing puzzles, or drawing.
Another way to think of this is that the physical therapist usually helps with the large muscles of the legs, arms, and body while the occupational therapist works with the fine muscles of the hands and fingers. Together, they work to improve your child's ability to perform everyday tasks and be more independent.
How can you tell if a physical or occupational therapist could benefit your child?
The best way is to schedule an evaluation with a physical or occupational therapist or to discuss the option with your current doctor.
There are certain signs that parents and teachers may notice in children who are good candidates:
- Difficulty with everyday tasks like eating with utensils, brushing hair or teeth, or dressing themselves
- Clumsiness or frequent loss of balance
- Poor handwriting compared to peers
- Bad posture and slouching, either standing or sitting
- Lack of spatial awareness, such as bumping into objects
- Over- or under-reaction to loud sounds, bright lights, physical pain, or other sensory input
What should you do if you think your child would benefit from a physical or occupational therapist?
If you have a doctor or treatment team, you can discuss your observations with them and schedule an evaluation. They should be able to recommend a good therapist. Another option is to contact your child's school; they may know of (or already make use of) physical or occupational therapists, like Kleiser Therapy, who specialize in therapy for autism. Usually, health insurance will cover these treatments, so be sure to choose a provider who is covered by your plan.