Physical and Occupational Therapy for Autism Spectrum Disorders

Eileen Bailey Health Guide
  • When your child has autism spectrum disorder, your doctor may refer you to different specialists to help develop various skills. In a previous post, we talked about what happens during social skills training. This week we will discuss physical and occupational therapy and how these might be used to help your child.


    Physical Therapy

    Physical therapists (PTs) work to help those who have impairment or limited functioning because of problems with the musculoskeletal, neurological, cardiopulmonary or skin systems. PTs first evaluate an individual’s physical functioning and then develop a plan to help improve function or eliminate pain.

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    Some children with autism have difficulty with physical abilities because of poor muscle tone. They may be described as clumsy or uncoordinated. Their movements may seem choppy. They may be unbalanced or have a hard time running and jumping.


    Some areas PTs help:

    • Gross motor skills – Activities and movements that require large muscle groups such as walking, running, stair climbing. The physical therapist would observe the child to determine which muscle groups are being over-used, under-used or used inefficiently and then develop exercises to help correct the issue.
    • Fine motor skills – Activities such as writing, throwing a ball, coloring, painting or other activities that use smaller, finer movements. Deficits in these areas may be caused by deficits in sensory perceptions or difficulty processing stimuli and appropriately responding to it. PTs may help with motor planning, sensory development and reflexes.
    • Balance and posture – If your child has problems with balance or posture, the PT will first determine if certain muscle groups need to be strengthened. In addition, exercises such as walking on a balance beam, balancing on therapy balls can help develop balance.

    Physical therapists work to help increase motor skills using exercises, assisted movement, and in some cases, orthopedic devices. Usually, children will attend physical therapy sessions (or the therapist will come to your home) for 30 to 60 minutes, once a week. The PT will provide one-on-one help during these sessions and give instructions on exercises to be completed each day. The PT will often spend time with parents, teaching them how to assist with exercises on a daily basis.


    Occupational Therapy


    Occupational therapists (OTs) help people with disabilities participate in their daily activities. Difficulties may be caused by illness, injury or cognitive impairment. As with PTs, initially an evaluation is completed to determine the extent of impairment and what the person’s goals are. The OT then completed a customized treatment plan.


    Your child’s occupation, or work, is to play, complete chores, attend to self-care, complete schoolwork and any other daily activities. These are the areas an occupational therapist will look at to determine where your child needs the most help. The OT may want to observe your child in different settings to determine what physical, psychological, social and environmental factors are affecting his or her abilities.


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    Some areas a OT helps:

    • Independent grooming and dressing
    • Eating difficulties
    • Transitioning from one activity to another
    • Sensory processing
    • Play skills
    • Social skills
    • Fine motor skills

    Because each child with autism is different and has unique needs, no two physical or occupational therapy programs will look the same. Exercises, activities and goals are directed your child’s specific needs.


    Some children may not qualify for physical or occupational therapy under insurance or government guidelines. In these cases, parents can privately pay for therapy. Or, if that isn’t possible, sports such as swimming and gymnastics (whole body exercises) can help develop muscle tone. Activities such as dance or martial arts can help develop balance as well as muscles.




    “About Occupational Therapy,” Date Unknown, Staff Writer, The American Occupational Therapy Association, Inc.


    “What is a Physical Therapist?” Date Unknown, Staff Writer, University of Kansas, School of Health Professions

Published On: February 20, 2013