Occupational and physical therapists provide services to many children with autism. By understanding the role of these important healthcare providers, and what to look for when choosing one, parents and school personnel can help improve the quality of their children’s educational experience.

Occupational therapy (OT) focuses upon either the development of new skills or the re-learning of skills that may have been lost. Most often, this includes what we call fine motor skills such as using your hands for dressing, personal hygiene, eating, and other activities of daily living.

Physical therapy (PT) usually focuses upon larger body parts and their movements, such as walking, flexibility, coordination, and strength. Physical therapy often involves repetitive exercises performed many times during the week.

In working with children with autism, we have found that occupational and physical therapists are most effective when they use procedures supported by evidence (research) and when they target and measure observable outcomes. This is the same way applied behavior analysts and many special educators approach their work.

With the help of occupational therapists, we can determine what observable changes we should expect to see in daily living activities, such as the child’s ability to brush his or her own teeth, use a pencil, manipulate a fork and spoon, or complete a simple assembly task. Similarly, physical therapists can help us determine if the child can walk independently and safely, carry a school lunch tray, use the playground equipment, or ride a bicycle. It is not enough to know that the child simply participated in instruction; we want to ensure that the therapy is having a positive impact.

Occupational and physical therapists should use positive reinforcement and rewards, teach in small steps, and collect data as they work with children with autism. In BHAC, we also focus on making modifications to the classroom that will make sitting easier and reduce distractions for her students. She creates an individualized skills-development program for each child based upon his or her unique abilities and challenges.

Occupational and physical therapists can be most effective with children with autism if they:

  • define the skills they are working on in observable, measurable terms
  • break complex skills down into smaller steps and components
  • focus on skills that are important, relevant, and functional for the child
  • use adaptive, specialized materials only when necessary
  • recognize the importance of evidence-based procedures
  • collect data
  • address sensory problems of children with autism by teaching them to tolerate different sensory stimuli – sounds, sights, and sensations
  • take advantage of the child’s preferences for certain sensory stimuli by using them as rewards during instruction
  • work as a member of a team of professionals to meet each child’s needs