Occupational therapists implement adaptive tools, specialized activities, and sensory regulation techniques to help autistic people navigate daily life situations.

Autism is a developmental difference that can affect the way a person experiences the world. It can result in a diverse range of characteristics; some advantageous and others benefiting from support.

Intermingled with your autistic child’s encyclopedic knowledge of maps might be a frantic aversion to dental care.

At school, they might be a math whiz who struggles with fine motor tasks like printing, or behavior regulation skills like waiting quietly during line up.

An occupational therapist can help them through these challenges with customized and carefully planned tasks and environment modifications. They can also help with skills training.

Occupational therapists (OTs) help people learn or strengthen skills that foster independence in daily living.

Their clients include people who live with:

  • disabilities
  • injuries
  • illnesses

In addition to a clinical setting, an OT can work with a person in a wide range of situations, such as at home, at school, or in the community.

An OT can help an autistic child in any setting where their autistic traits may cause challenges or misunderstandings in a primarily allistic (non-autistic) world.

Occupational therapy is highly individualized. An OT must first evaluate your child so they can design a support program tailored to their skills profile.

Some of the ways that OTs can help autistic children learn or improve skills include:

  • Daily living: implementing visual schedules and adaptive tools to support activities like grooming, hygiene, and independent eating
  • Executive functioning: cueing working memory, sequencing, and organizing skills with visual timers and verbal prompts from assistance technology
  • Social situations: coaching interactions like sharing, taking turns, maintaining conversations, and being a team player
  • Gross motor: facilitating playground activities such as climbing, swinging, and catching a ball to regulate sensory integration, build confidence, and lead to positive social encounters
  • Fine motor: using adaptive tools such as grips and weights to support activities like coloring, scissor use, and handwriting
  • Sensory regulation: offering tools like headphones, sunglasses, fidgets, and safe chewable items to reduce sensory distraction and overwhelm
  • Self-feeding: using strategies like food-based play to encourage the consumption of more foods for children who are texture-averse and fussy eaters
  • Safety: providing parents with strategies for safety in various settings such as parking lots and near stoves

School settings

School-based OT support for autistic students can help them participate in educational activities along with their peers.

The regular classroom setting and schedule aren’t often the ideal fit for neurodivergent students, but OT support can bridge this gap and make meaningful participation possible.

In addition to adapting school materials and activities for an autistic child, an OT can help the teacher learn more about their autistic student’s neurodivergence and how they experience certain situations differently from their classmates.

Dental settings

The dentist’s office is an example of a community-based setting where an occupational therapist can help an autistic child. Autistic traits like communication differences and sensory integration issues can make dental appointments challenging experiences.

In collaboration with dental clinicians, an OT can modify the dental environment or protocols to make procedures easier for an autistic child. Examples include changing the lighting, sounds, and tactile sensations.

Improve mental health

Occupational therapy can also result in mental health benefits for autistic people because of the impact it can have on significant life areas:

  • sensory processing
  • pain
  • social participation
  • physical environments
  • self-care
  • daily activities
  • relationships

Living without support in these areas can be stressful and isolating for an autistic child. An OT can teach independence-fostering skills and strategies that can lead to mental health improvements.

To develop a treatment plan, an OT evaluates a child’s functioning in several areas:

  • Motor: fine (manipulation of small objects) and gross (balance and posture)
  • Sensory: sensory seeking or avoiding, stimuli response
  • Communication: non-verbal communication and speech
  • Cognitive: stamina and attention span
  • Social: eye contact, interactions, emotional and behavioral regulation, physical withdrawal

They identify the child’s strengths and challenges for each area, then modify and adapt relevant activities to make participation easier for the child.

At school, a child’s OT will work toward the goals identified in their individualized education plan (IEP). IEP goals are ones that enable a child to participate in school activities.

When an OT supports a child in their home or in the community, the therapy goals are specific to those settings.

Therapy can also be collaborative, with OTs working alongside other professionals like:

  • speech-language pathologists (SLPs)
  • physical therapists (PTs)
  • applied behavior analysis (ABA) practitioners

For example, an OT and SLP can both support handwriting skills. An OT can use verbal instructions to help a child form letters, and an SLP works with a child to increase their comprehension of verbal instructions.

Your family doctor may be able to help you find an occupational therapist for your child.

You can also ask:

  • the staff at your child’s school
  • other parents of autistic children
  • other healthcare professionals

You can also search online for occupational therapy providers in your area.

OTs support a diverse range of clients. Consider seeking a clinician with autism experience in order to find an OT who’s a better fit for your child.

Occupational therapists help people learn or strengthen skills that enable increased independence. They have a wide range of clients, including autistic children.

An OT can support your child in numerous settings, including at home, in the community, and at school. They can facilitate growth in several key areas such as:

  • motor skills
  • sensory regulation
  • communication

There are several ways to find an OT. You can start with your family doctor, who may be able to provide a referral. You can also ask the staff at your child’s school, other parents of autistic children, or other healthcare professionals.