When I tell people that I want to become an occupational therapist, I often get responses like, “What is that, therapy for the workplace?” While it is true that many occupational therapists (OTs) help adults recover from injuries so that they can go back to work, OTs can also help people of any age gain or regain the ability to do the activities that make life meaningful to them. One population that OTs can work with is children and adults on the autism spectrum. For individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), motor skills and sensory integration can be difficult. Sensory processing, modulation, or discrimination problems can lead to struggles in school, at work, in social situations, and in their ability to live a fulfilling life. Occupational therapy with a sensory integration frame of reference (OT/SI) can help improve their quality and enjoyment of life.
When interacting with or treating those with ASD, it is helpful to remember that “persons with ASD are integral members of their families and communities and have the right to fully participate in the educational, social, cultural, political, and economic life of society” (AOTA, 2009). While typical OT treatment can improve motor skills in a person with ASD, OT/SI increases their ability to participate in classroom/workplace and leisure activities. For example, if a child with ASD is invited to a birthday party, they might not be able to handle the auditory stimuli and begin to exhibit inappropriate behaviors. This can result in the child not being invited to other social events, which may lead to more social difficulty in the future than a child with ASD already has. But if individuals with ASD have effective treatment, a supportive environment, and work hard, they can be very successful.
One of many success stories is that of Paul Morris. Paul Morris is on the autism spectrum and was non-verbal until the age of 5. He had many typical ASD issues, including sensory integrative issues. But Paul did not let these struggles stop him. Through treatment and hard work, Paul went through a College Internship Program and served as a member of his Student Government. After this program, he learned how to cook, clean, live on his own, use public transportation, and work. He also volunteers and speaks publicly to advocate for himself and others with ASD. Paul explains that “it is not only autism people who need to learn, but people who don’t have autism need to learn to understand us and be tolerant” (2015). He recognized how far he has come, but that he still struggles with some social skills and sensory problems, skills with which OT/SI can help.
The effects of OT/SI on children and adults with ASD help them thrive in typical environments, making their lives (and the lives of their caregivers) easier. This is important because children with ASD and SI issues have a “significantly lower overall level of competence in activities, social, and school performance (Child Behavior Checklist)” (Reynolds, Bendixen, Lawrence, & Lane, 2011). OT/SI can help children and adults with ASD cope with the sensory under or over stimulations they experience in everyday life. The better they can cope with sensory stimuli, the better they can function in school or at work, which can help them become successful and lead to a more fulfilling life. Why is paying attention to and researching OT/SI for people with ASD so important? ASD prevalence rates have increased in the past few years. According to the Autism Science Foundation, 1 out of every 68 children born in 2016 is on the autism spectrum. The population of children and adults with ASD is not small, and OTs should be prepared to give the best possible treatment so that people with ASD have an equal opportunity to participate in what makes life meaningful to them.
American Occupational Therapy Association. (2009a). AOTA’s societal statement on autism spectrum disorder. American Jounral of Occupational Therapy, 63(6), 843-844.
Autism Science Foundation (2017). How common is autism? Retrieved from http://autismsciencefoundation.org/what-is-autism/how-common-is-autism/
Morris, Paul (2015). My story of growing up with autism. Autism Speaks. Retrieved from https://www.autismspeaks.org/blog/2015/07/01/my-story-growing-autism
Reynolds, S., Bendixen, R.M., Lawrence, T., & Lane, S.J. (2011). A Pilot Study Examining Activity Participation, Sensory Responsiveness, and Competence in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 41, 1496-1506. DOI 10.1007/s10803-010-1173-x.