Lean on Me: How Occupational Therapy Can Support You and Your Autistic Child


Autism is a developmental disorder that limits your child’s ability to communicate and interact with others. Your autistic child faces many obstacles, and you face a great challenge in raising a child with autism. It can be tough on your whole family, and at times, the frustration and isolation might seem overwhelming. But there’s hope; occupational therapy can make autism less overwhelming, help you better understand and address your child’s difficulties, and improve your child’s quality of life.

All occupational therapy programs begin with an evaluation. During this session, an occupational therapist will observe your child to assess his or her strengths and challenges while engaging in daily activities. Based on the results of that observation, the therapist will then build an individualized intervention plan designed to maximize your child’s participation in activities and social situations at home, school, work (for teens and adults), and in the community.

Typically, the plan employs developmental and play activities to address three main areas of priority (though these priorities can differ depending on your child’s unique situation):

  • Social interaction
  • Behavior
  • Performance within a classroom

A key component of any autism-focused occupational therapy plan is attention to sensory integration and sensory processing. Roughly 80% of autistic children have sensory processing issues, which makes it difficult for them to understand texture, sound, smell, taste, brightness, and movement. Such issues often play a major role in the social and behavioral difficulties autistic children experience in their day-to-day lives. However, it can be tricky for parents to pinpoint these problems. An occupational therapist can evaluate your child for the presence and severity of sensory processing issues, and then set goals—like improving tolerance of ordinary noises or decreasing touch sensitivity—as part of the intervention plan.

Occupational therapists at Philadelphia’s Jefferson School of Health Professions recently conducted a study showing that occupational therapy helps ease sensory difficulties in ways that improve daily function. In fact, compared to the children in this study who received no sensory integration therapy, those who received it three hours per week made significantly more improvement and required less assistance from their parents in self-care and social situations.

The less assistance your child needs, the lighter the burden on your shoulders. As the parent of a child with Autism, you structure your whole life around your child’s needs. You worry about his or her happiness, well-being, and academic and personal success—and whether you’re taking the right steps to help. But you don’t have to face those challenges all on your own; occupational therapy can give you and your child the extra support you need.

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