One of the most debilitating effects of Autism Spectrum Disorder in many diagnosed individuals is the impairment of their executive functioning skills and other capabilities which are very important in many aspects of their daily living. Because of this impairment, many simple daily tasks that don’t require other people’s help may end up as difficult to accomplish by autistic individuals on their own. Their motor skills, emotional and psychological responses, and social awareness are also very likely to be affected, reducing their self-esteem and overall quality of life. For this reason, occupational therapy has become an invaluable treatment program to help autistic people achieve a normal life despite their condition.
Occupational therapy aims to help individuals with disabilities widen their range of capabilities so they can participate in more activities at home, school, in the workplace, and throughout the community. Those who are injured and incapacitated are also given the chance to recover from their injury and regain their skills. Persons who are experiencing cognitive and physical changes caused by old age and other conditions causing regression are also given the much-needed support through occupational therapy. In the case of autistic people, occupational therapy helps them improve many aspects of their life, in a series of assessment done by the therapist. Like other professions specializing in a specific area of expertise, an occupation therapist is required to pass a licensure exam before they can legally practice. Occupational therapists also work hand in hand with other specialists, like physical therapists, speech therapists, nurses, and social workers to improve the health care system.
Occupational Therapy Evaluation
Before an autistic individual undergoes the actual occupational therapy sessions, they must first be evaluated by the therapists through a series of standardized examinations. The therapist will ask the person to perform numerous daily tasks that are expected of their age, to see which part the person has difficulty completing alone. Aside from actual observation, the therapist can also set up to record the person’s daily activities and see how they perform actions and interact with their environment. These assessments will help determine the degree of the person’s impairment and the appropriate therapy procedures to address their needs. The therapist will focus their findings in the following areas:
- Posture that the person is most comfortable
- Skills in holding and manipulating small objects
- Ability to maintain balance
- Play skills, either involving other children or performed alone
- Attention span to objects of interest
- Stamina to sustain activities
- Response when new activities are introduced
- Desire to have a personal space
- Reaction to different sources of sensory stimuli
- Autism-related behaviors
- Interaction between the autistic person and the parent or guardian
When sufficient data is gathered to conclude that the autistic individual is in need of occupational therapy treatment, the therapist will then come up with the ideal program design tailored to the person’s needs. It isn’t encouraged for therapists to apply a single program to all participants because every autistic person is unique in their own ways, and that includes their needs. The approach that proves to be the most effective is structuring each program based on the specific person’s assessment. In individualizing the program, the therapist can introduce a combination of several strategies, namely:
- Adaptive strategies, which focuses on improving the participant’s response to changes and the introduction of a new element into their life. The participant is also taught with coping techniques while they undergo transition stages.
- Play activities, which will help improve the individual’s skills in interacting with other people (especially for autistic children) and communicating with them.
- Physical activities, designed to enhance the autistic person’s motor coordination, strength, sense of balance and spatial awareness.
- Developmental activities, which trains the participant to establish routines that help them become more independent as they grow, especially personal matters such as maintaining personal hygiene. This includes combing the hair, trimming fingernails, and brushing teeth.
Benefits of Occupational Therapy
Through the cooperation of parents, educators and other experts, the occupational therapist will provide the necessary avenue for the autistic individual to improve their quality of life. The therapy sessions will introduce new skills that the participants can make good use of, help them maintain both new and inherent skills, and possibly improve these skills to the best of the participant’s abilities. Effective occupational therapy will lead the autistic individual to show signs of improvement in many aspects of their life which include:
- maintaining proper posture and positions while sitting and standing
- remembering and properly performing routine tasks such as fixing the bed, taking a shower, using the toilet, and grooming
- gross motor skills needed to perform actions that require limb coordination, such as running, climbing, and riding
- fine motor skills needed to perform smaller actions such as writing with a pen, tying the shoelaces, and using scissors
- problem-solving, reading, writing, and distinguishing shapes and colors
- social skills and communication
If these improvements are developed further and reinforced through continuous therapy sessions, there is a great possibility that the autistic person can finally achieve living a relatively normal life despite the disorder.
The effectiveness of the occupational therapy also depends on the willingness of the autistic individual participating in it. If you have an autistic child whom you plan to register for an occupational therapy program, it is encouraged that you first consult your child about your plan and tell them the importance of the therapy in changing their lives for the better. To ease any tension that your child might feel, you can make the therapy a rewarding experience for them by asking them what they want to do after every session.
Like other health care services, most school districts and public intervention program providers will perform the occupational therapy service for free. Your health insurance coverage may also take care of the total cost of the therapy or a portion of it, depending on the range of the coverage