April is the month to recognize several important health-related observances. Two that often go hand-in-hand are National Autism Awareness Month and Occupational Therapy Month. While separate observances, it makes sense to start a conversation about how occupational therapists can help families, schools, and communities understand, support, and accommodate those with autism.
What does an occupational therapist do?
Simply put, occupational therapists work with people who may have an injury, illness, or disability that interferes with their everyday routines, activities, and functions. They work with people of all ages and varying abilities to ensure that patients are able to learn, practice, and develop skills that they may need or want at any point throughout the day. This means that, depending on age and ability, an OT might help a patient learn how to drive a car, get on the bus, or simply buckle a seatbelt.
OT strategies for preschoolers
Self-care can be a hurdle for children on the autism spectrum and a challenge for their parents, especially with children around the preschool age. Occupational therapists may work with families to help patients learn how to get dressed, brush their hair, wash their hands, etc. Aside from these therapy sessions, occupational therapists might also suggest additional procedures to reinforce these skills at home or in school.
For a how-to task such as brushing one’s teeth, suggestions might be as follows:
- Model the process several times as your child watches
- Complete the process at the same time every day and follow the routine exactly
- Include step-by-step photos for children to follow: for instance, a photo of how to hold the toothbrush, one showing how much toothpaste to use, an image of the handle for cold water, etc.
- Consider setting a timer for the length of time that children should brush so that they know when to stop
- Talk through the process while they are getting acquainted with the task
When addressing overstimulation or meltdowns, suggestions could be to:
- Take notes about what sights, smells, sounds, and textures sparked the stress
- Note what behaviors or reactions you first noticed before your child became visibly upset
- Anticipate when this stimuli might be encountered again so that you can prepare your child to cope or self-soothe
- Test out different strategies or methods for calming during an episode or incident that might create too much stimulation
To encourage friendships and build social skills:
- Offer to host a small get-together in your home; children feel most secure and comfortable when in their own surroundings
- Keep playdates small and brief—too many new faces or too much commotion at once can overstimulate an unsuspecting child
- Practice asking questions back and forth where you model appropriate eye contact, manners of speaking, and how to show interest in what someone else is saying
- Coordinate small outings or activities that you know your child enjoys—he will associate that interest/enjoyment with the new peer or friend group
- Discuss and model what it means to “share” things; discuss that sharing doesn’t mean that the item is given away and confirm that something shared should be returned
To encourage patience, “downtime,” and listening skills:
- Practice storytime at home before bed and model how to follow along with the reader, turn pages, listen quietly, and track the print with your finger
- Use games like “Simon says” to instill the importance of listening and following directions
- Take your child along on errands where you may have to wait in line—this helps children recognize that waiting one’s turn is an important daily routine
- Carve out time in the day where your child is NOT entertained. This not only allows for quiet time, but also spurs creative thinking, since idle time encourages children to entertain themselves without adults coordinating the activity