Occupational therapy has been around for thousands of years, beginning back in Roman times with the use of therapeutic baths, massage, music, and exercise. Later in history people who were considered insane were restrained, locked up, and not treated humanely at all. Not until the 1700s did the hospital system change to include the therapy utilized by the Romans centuries beforehand. This treatment model made its way to the United States in 1910, and is what we understand “occupational therapy” to be today.
Occupational therapists are a necessity when it comes to treating patients on the autism spectrum. Autistic people suffer from sensory dysfunction, which varies in severity. Some children just have sensory dysfunction without any of the other issues connected to autism. It is a not fully-understood problem. But all children with autism do have a sensory component, which can vary in severity, and can be improved.
An occupational therapist, or OT, will spend 30-60 minutes a session with a child bonding, playing, and getting them to perform special tasks. These tasks utilize fine and gross motor skills, such as threading and jumping. An OT will help teach a child how to button their clothing, tie their shoes, and hold a pencil. They also work with feeding issues, such as holding a utensil and drinking from a cup.
Sensory dysfunction is an imbalance in the system. Sometimes a child needs more input, and sometimes it is less. The child needs to learn both coping skills and calming activities. OTs work with both, and provide “input” to the body that will instill a type of muscle memory.
If you feel your child has a problem with their sensory system, request an evaluation from your child study team. You can also do this with your own doctor, but you don’t have to pay anything additional to the school OT. They will evaluate a child, interview caretakers and will determine how much of a deficit there appears to be. They will then make recommendations for the next meeting. Depending on the severity and the child, sessions can vary from individual home sessions to group sessions or private sessions in school. This can take place daily all the way up to once a week.
Occupational therapy can help a child in numerous ways, but the biggest way is with the bond and trust they form with the child. This is a hurdle many caregivers have to cross with a child on the spectrum. OT offices are a safe place for children who are constantly assaulted by the outside environment. OTs heal the “broken” parts of a child, and they become part of the reason a child gets better. A child will learn to associate feeling better with their OT sessions.
Most people hear the term “occupational therapy” and automatically think of someone needing therapy to handle their job. In essence this is true. An occupational therapist works with many people to help them return to work. For children with a disability, their “work” is attending school and self-care skills. This includes hygiene, dressing and eating — all tasks that an OT helps with.