The Role of Occupational Therapy in Treating Individuals with Autism


April is Autism Awareness Month, but did you know that it is also Occupational Therapy Month? When a child is diagnosed on the autism spectrum, one of the first services they will be recommended to seek out is occupational therapy. Occupational therapists (OTs) treat the whole person and can work with individuals on the autism spectrum at any point in development across the lifespan.

So, what exactly is occupational therapy? OTs define occupation not as a job, but as any task you do throughout your day. Using this perspective, OTs believe in the therapeutic use of occupation when treating patients. An OT thinks about tasks that are meaningful to the individual, and helps him or her to meet their goals by doing these activities. With children on the autism spectrum, occupational therapists often work on daily living activities (getting dressed, bathing, eating), handwriting, social skills, independent living skills, and play. Children on the autism spectrum often have difficulty processing sensory input from the environment in the typical way most of us do. This is a major reason why they might have trouble completing these daily activities.

Imagine you’re sitting in a restaurant with your family. Most typically functioning people would notice that it is loud and kind of chilly from the air conditioner, but still be able to focus on the conversation and feel OK. An individual who is more sensitive to sensory input, like a child on the autism spectrum, might notice the noise of the air conditioner, the chatter from all the other people, the waitress reading the specials to the table across the room, the sound of a chair scraping on the floor, the light from the cars in the parking lot shining through the window, the wobbly chair they are sitting on, the smells of all the different foods combined, and still be trying their best to listen to the conversation with their family. This is just one example of what a child on the autism spectrum might be experiencing every day. There is no wonder they might have some trouble completing their daily activities while trying to process all this sensory input that a typically functioning individual can more easily filter out!

An occupational therapist considers the child’s sensory processing needs while using occupations that are meaningful to the child. OTs use things like therapeutic swings, foam mats, scooters, yoga balls, and other sensory-based interventions, combined with their daily occupations, in a very intentional way to address a child’s specific sensory processing needs. An OT will evaluate a child and create a plan to either provide the child with the right kind of sensory input that helps them to focus, or to help desensitize their reactions to commonly experienced sensory input that prevent a child from functioning at their highest potential. What kind of issues can dysregulated sensory processing cause? It can cause difficulty eating (foods have a lot of different textures), wearing clothing, bathing or showering, riding in a car, and many more difficulties that a typically functioning individual probably wouldn’t think  about twice.

Occupational therapy goes hand-in-hand with autism. As Dr. Stephen Shore said, “If you’ve met one individual with autism, you’ve met one individual with autism.” Each person on the autism spectrum is different. The unique way an OT looks at therapy can be just what a unique person on the autism spectrum requires to address his or her specific needs.

Erin Botero, M.S., OTR/L, graduated from Towson University in 2015 with a B.S. in Occupation and Well-Being, and in 2016 with a M.S. in Occupational Therapy with a Post Baccalaureate Certificate in Autism Studies. Currently, she works as an Occupational Therapist on the Child and Adolescent Neuropsychiatric Inpatient Unit at Sheppard Pratt's Towson Hospital, which specializes in the treatment of children with co-occurring developmental and psychiatric needs.