A December 2008 Easter Seals-sponsored study showed nearly 80% of surveyed families with a child with autism are extremely or very concerned about their child’s potential to achieve independence as an adult, and occupational therapy practitioners can help.

Occupational therapists can identify early signs or indicators of autism spectrum disorder (ASD), so the family and child can receive needed support and services. OTs help children and their families participate in daily routines and promote their function when facing barriers or difficulties typically associated with this disorder.

April is designated as Occupational Therapy month and Autism Awareness month.

New research by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill suggests that, because children with autism are unlikely to properly self-report their experiences, the OT-based technique of interviewing their parents may add important information to help families understand and better respond to the needs of their children, easing challenges in daily routines. “The physician is responsible for determining the diagnosis of autism. The occupational therapy practitioner can provide valuable input to the physician and the family during this assessment phase,” says Sandra Schefkind, MS, OTR/L, pediatric coordinator of the American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA).
Jackson says the mere presence of signs or indicators does not necessarily indicate an ASD diagnosis but instead signifies to an OT practitioner that the child may benefit from further evaluation and services. She describ the four categories, noting that the areas are interrelated and can affect one another:

•Socialization: The individual may have difficulty understanding how to initiate contact with other people and thus has difficulty forming and maintaining relationships. They often have poor eye contact and appear disinterested or disengaged from snuggling, hugging, or touching.

•Communication: The individual may have limited conversational skills. They may repeat parts of sentences without apparent regard for content and meaning. They may have difficulty initiating and sustaining conversations and with the back-and-forth sharing of ideas.

•Behavior: The individual may focus on very minute details, and demonstrate an inability to transition to new situations or changes in routine. They can become very focused on specific toys or objects but show limited interest in people.

•Sensory: They may exhibit “self-stimulating” behaviors (eg, spinning, rocking), which could indicate either over- or under-sensitivities to the senses. This can include eating and feeding problems.

“Occupational therapy practitioners recognize the importance of serving both the child and the family when providing early intervention," Schefkind says. "They build the family’s capacity to care for their child with autism; help address daily family concerns such as play skills, feeding skills, nap schedules, and positioning in car seats, high chairs, and grocery store carts; and help plan and prepare for future transitions and needs.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports one in every 150 children born have or develop ASD. It is the fastest-growing developmental disability, with an annual growth rate of approximately 10% to 17%.

[Source: American Occupational Therapy Association, Bethesda, Md]