By: Lindsey Murphy, OTR/L
It cannot be a coincidence that April is both occupational therapy and Autism awareness month! Occupational therapists play a vital role in helping individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) to participate in their daily activities and live their lives to the fullest.
When pondering what skills are utilized throughout a person’s daily activities, an individual often encounters a variety of situations involving fine motor, gross motor, oral motor, visual motor and social skills. Recent research studies suggest that ASD is likely caused by a surplus of synapses (brain cell connectors) that are not pruned by the brain during development. Researchers hypothesize that symptoms of ASD are related to abnormalities in the brain’s network that affect an individual’s ability to regulate and participate fully in their environment.
Occupational therapists are specially trained to enhance full participation in daily activities by evaluating and grading tasks based on each person’s unique challenges and skill levels. This is ideal when treating clients with ASD because this condition presents very uniquely in each individual.
In order to maximize progress, occupational therapists provide a wide variety of individualized treatment activities. Promoting neural timing in the brain is a critical component of increasing success in daily activities. The Interactive Metronome (IM) program directly measures and improves neural timing. Research has shown that the IM program improves attention, motor coordination, language processing, reading, math, impulse control, social interactions, handwriting, and sensory processing skills.
Autism and sensory processing challenges are often closely linked. Occupational therapists (OTs) also provide sensory integration therapy to promote self-regulation in multi-sensory environments. OTs can create a customized sensory diet for each individual that involves heavy work and regulatory activities for each child or adult’s unique nervous system. Sensory-based feeding therapy is a common approach to oral motor challenges and improves the variety and volume of food that an individual consumes. OTs provide strategies such as visual schedules, transition objects, and developing a person’s organizational skills in order to assist with transitioning and completing daily routines. Sensorimotor activities provide fun and motivating ways to practice handwriting, motor coordination, impulse control, and other critical skills. It is also an effective way to reduce sensitivities to clothing, grooming, brushing teeth, tactile input, noises, and other stimuli that some individuals with ASD may find bothersome.
During an initial occupational therapy evaluation, OTs often test for retained primitive reflexes that may be impacting an individual’s ability to tolerate increased sensory input or affect their participation during daily activities. For instance, the Tonic Labyrinthine Reflex (TLR) supports head control and postural stability in infants. However, if it does not naturally integrate by 1 year of age, symptoms such as low muscle tone, toe walking, poor balance, motion sickness, and difficulty with spatial relations can occur. Research has shown that individuals with ASD commonly have retained primitive reflexes. Fortunately, OTs are trained to help an individual to properly integrate any retained reflexes in order to participate more fully during daily activities.