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How can occupational therapy help a child with autism

What Is Occupational Therapy?

What is occupational therapy?

Occupational therapy (OT) helps people work on cognitive, physical, social, and motor skills. The goal is to improve everyday skills which allow people to become more independent and participate in a wide range of activities. 

For people with autism, OT programs often focus on play skills, learning strategies, and self-care. OT strategies can also help to manage sensory issues.

The occupational therapist will begin by evaluating the person’s current level of ability. The evaluation looks at several areas, including how the person:

  • Learns
  • Plays
  • Cares for themselves
  • Interacts with their environment

The evaluation will also identify any obstacles that prevent the person from participating in any typical day-to-day activities.

Based on this evaluation, the therapist creates goals and strategies that will allow the person to work on key skills. Some examples of common goals include:

  • Independent dressing
  • Eating
  • Grooming
  • Using the bathroom
  • Fine motor skills like writing, coloring, and cutting with scissors

Occupational therapy usually involves half-hour to one-hour sessions. The number of sessions per week is based on individual needs.

The person with autism may also practice these strategies and skills outside of therapy sessions at home and in other settings including school.

Some OTs are specifically trained to address feeding and swallowing challenges in people with autism. They can evaluate the particular issue a person is dealing with and provide treatment plans for improving feeding-related challenges.

Learn more about autism and feeding issues. 

Who provides Occupational Therapy?

A licensed Occupational Therapist (OT) provides OT services. He/she has a master’s degree and has passed a national certification exam (The National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy, or NBCOT).

In addition, OTs must obtain a license in their state. You can learn more on the American Occupational Therapy Association website.

In some cases, therapy services are provided by an Occupational Therapy Assistant (OTA). This is a person with an associate’s or bachelor’s degree, who is trained and supervised by a certified OT. The assistant works directly with the person with autism to practice skills and work towards goals that are written by the OT in the clinical treatment plan.

Is it covered by insurance?

Yes, occupational therapy is often covered by health insurance. In some cases, a doctor must state that the therapy is medically necessary for health insurance to provide coverage. [Please see our insurance resources for more information about insurance and coverage for autism services.]

Students can also receive occupational therapy as part of their Individualized Education Program (IEP) at school. OT is often written into IEPs as a related service and includes goals that are related to learning. Occupational therapy services are provided at no cost to families when they are included in the IEP.

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Young children can receive occupational therapy through their Early Intervention program. Early intervention is offered in each state to children up to age 3 who are not growing and developing as quickly as expected. These services are free or low-cost based on your family income. 

How do I find/select a qualified provider?

Autism Speaks Directory

American Occupational Therapy Association

  1. Who will be working directly with my child?
  2. How many years have you been working as a OT?
  3. Where will services be provided?
  4. How often will therapy sessions be?
  5. What are the goals of this program?
  6. What real-life skills will therapy help with?
  7. How do you help with sensory issues?
  8. How do you measure progress?


occupational therapistoccupational therapist

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a neurodevelopmental condition characterized by impaired social communication skills, restricted and repetitive behaviors, and isolated areas of interest. Approximately one in 54 children in the United States are diagnosed with ASD, which can be recognized as early as age two but is typically detected after age four.

Early diagnosis and intervention can greatly improve outcomes for people with autism. Occupational therapy (OT) is a primary mode of intervention. This post explores the benefits of occupational therapy for autism, as well as the unique role that OT plays in treating ASD.

What Is Occupational Therapy?

Occupational therapy is a field of healthcare that holistically treats people who have injuries, disabilities, or other conditions, including autism. In this practice, occupational therapists (OTs) help patients develop, recover, or maintain their ability to engage in meaningful daily activities, including communicating appropriately with others. 

OTs begin the process by communicating directly with the patient and family to understand the patient’s individual needs. They assess the patient’s physical, sensory, emotional, and cognitive abilities before developing reasonable goals and a treatment plan. The OT then works with the patient for several sessions or longer term, helping them make progress toward their goals.

The Role of Occupational Therapy in Treating ASD

Occupational therapists evaluate the current developmental levels of children and adults with autism, aiming to improve their ability to self-regulate emotions and participate in social interactions. Through interventions, OTs can help people with autism build on their areas of strength and overcome their limitations.

Ways Occupational Therapists Evaluate ASD

chart showing skills OT evaluate in patients with Autismchart showing skills OT evaluate in patients with Autismchart showing skills OT evaluate in patients with Autism

To evaluate a patient with autism, the OT may use screening tools such as an autism checklist, a sensory profile, the Childhood Autism Rating Scale (CARS), or diagnosis criteria set forth in the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V).  When observing the patient, an OT will consider the following skills:,

  • Social:

    interactions with others, emotion regulation, behavior, desire for personal space, eye contact, aggression

  • Communication:

    speech, non-verbal communication

  • Cognitive:

    attention span, stamina

  • Sensory:

    responses to stimuli, sensory seeking, sensory defensiveness

  • Motor

    : posture, balance, manipulation of small objects

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Common Occupational Therapy Interventions for Autism 

After completing the evaluation, the occupational therapist works with the patient and family to develop an intervention plan and treatment goals. Occupational therapy interventions for autism may include:,

  • Focusing on sensory integration and sensory-based strategies.

  • Emphasizing mental health and wellness.

  • Implementing emotional development and self-regulation strategies and programs.

  • Organizing peer groups, social participation, and play activities.

  • Improving self-care routines to help with daily activities such as bathing, feeding, and grooming.

  • Working on motor development.

  • Supporting an adolescent’s transition into adulthood and helping them build skills to enter the workforce.

  • Using cognitive behavioral approaches to support positive behaviors.

Benefits of Occupational Therapy for Autism

child in occupational therapychild in occupational therapy

The main goal of occupational therapy for autism is to improve the patient’s quality of life. Through interventions, occupational therapists can help people with ASD gain independence and:

  • Focus on academic tasks.

  • Communicate appropriately.

  • Maintain and foster relationships.

  • Work with others to achieve a common goal or purpose.

  • Learn to delay gratification.

  • Express emotions in a healthy, productive way and regulate arousal level.

  • Become more independent and confident.

  • Feel less anxious.

How to Find an Occupational Therapist

Contacting the patient’s school or physician is a good place to start to find a qualified occupational therapist. When choosing an OT to work with a child or adult with autism, look for someone who is willing to:

  • Conduct a comprehensive diagnostic evaluation and create written goals for treatment.

  • Offer one-on-one treatment in a sensory-rich setting.

  • Provide an intensive treatment program that encourages family members to participate.

  • Ask questions, and encourage the patient and family to do the same.

Occupational therapy helps people at all points along the autism spectrum develop the skills they need to communicate better and participate in meaningful daily activities. OT practitioners are uniquely positioned to provide treatment that can help individuals with autism succeed. Becoming an occupational therapist is a rewarding career path that can lead you to help people of all ages manage physical and cognitive disabilities and differences. If this direction interests you, check out the entry-level graduate degree programs in occupational therapy offered by the University of St. Augustine for Health Sciences.

The University of St. Augustine for Health Sciences (USAHS) offers hands-on Master of Occupational Therapy (MOT) and Doctor of Occupational Therapy (OTD) degrees. Practice with mock patients in our state-of-the-art simulation centers and learn anatomy with our high-tech tools. Prepare for clinical practice with patients across the lifespan, as well as advanced roles in research, practice leadership, and policymaking. Residential and Flex (online/weekend-focused) paths are available. We also offer an online Post-Professional Doctor of Occupational Therapy (PPOTD) program, which is designed for working clinicians and healthcare educators who need flexibility in earning their degree.

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Occupational therapists (OTs) help people of all ages actively and purposefully engage in their daily lives. OTs work with each patient to assess their needs and determine the best path to develop, modify, adapt, or regain skills that are challenging because of their limitations. Pediatric occupational therapists help children and adolescents learn and develop the skills that they need to successfully function in the world as adults. Pediatric OTs often work with children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) to help them access their natural environments with greater ease, increase their independence, and improve their ability to take part in activities that are meaningful to the child and family.

Sensory Concerns

Children on the autism spectrum often present with sensory modulation difficulties or sensitivities, meaning they can have challenges processing sight, sound, touch, taste, smell, body position, and balance. This impacts a child’s ability to perform routine activities, such as brushing teeth, engaging with family at dinnertime, or participating in recess at school.

A simple task like brushing your teeth seems routine to many people, but to children with ASD, these menial tasks can be overwhelming due to their sensory challenges. Using a variety of strategies and techniques, including a sensory-integration-based approach, OTs help the child and family identify challenges and use age-appropriate methods that teach regulation and skill acquisition and help them to be successful in completion. 

Setting goals

Some of the goals an OT may work on with a child with Autism Spectrum Disorder include but are not limited to:

  • understanding boundaries and personal space
  • playing and social participation skills
  • keeping a safe body
  • performing daily living skills such as brushing teeth, bathing, or dressing
  • creating schedules to assist with transitions and expectations
  • using sensory diets to assist in regulating and modulating input around them which may include use of a weighted blanket, pressure vest, noise cancelling headphones, etc.
  • being aware of their safety and providing strategies to aid in safety awareness
  • self-feeding and increasing food variety for picky eaters

Individualized treatment

Occupational therapy is a holistic and individualized treatment that assists each patient in reaching and maintaining their full potential to live a happy and successful life. In an occupational therapy evaluation, goals are determined based on the specific child. It is very important to understand what challenges and limitations are impacting a child’s activities and how to assist them in successfully engaging in their daily lives. Occupational therapists also help children reach their full potential through the joy of play. Using a play-based model to learn daily skills makes learning fun and motivating, and the child often does not even realize they are working hard.

An OT’s goal is to provide the child and family with the tools necessary to be successful in all environments. Caregivers often see optimal outcomes in children with ASD when there is consistency between therapy and daily routines; children can continually learn essential motor, daily living, and social skills as they develop into functioning adults.

Learn more about our pediatric outpatient rehabilitation services available at Hasbro Children’s Hospital or Bradley Hospital.