April is both Autism Awareness Month and Occupational Therapy Month – and it couldn’t be a more fitting duo of observances.  Occupational therapy (OT) is a critical component of treatment for many children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), a developmental disorder that affects communication and behavior.

To be diagnosed with ASD, a person would have demonstrated difficulties with three areas of functioning: social interaction, communication, and restrictive/repetitive patterns.

Symptoms might be present as early as 16 to 18 months of age, and can include speech and language difficulties, such as the absence or delay of speech, difficulty with normal back-and-forth conversation, inconsistency with eye contact, gestures and facial expressions, and repeating words and phrases.

Children with ASD might also:

• Experience difficulty with imaginative and interactive play skills.

• Have an unusual interest in specific topics, items or parts of toys.

• Prefer routines and having things completed in a certain order or manner.

• Avoid or seek different sensory experiences, such as not responding or over-responding to sounds, textures and movement.

• Visually inspect or admire objects or parts of objects.

Screening and testing for the disorder can begin as early as 18 months of age and continue on into adulthood.

It’s crucial to identify and diagnose ASD at an early age, when the brain is more malleable and the opportunity is greatest for learning new skills. Think of a brand-new container of Play-Doh as compared to an older one.

While the ability to change the brain exists throughout an individual’s lifespan, early childhood is when the brain is most responsive to neuroplasticity, the ability to rewire, adapt and change the connections within their brains.

Early identification and diagnosis also provide a child with the opportunity to access a variety of services, including applied behavioral analysis and physical, speech and occupational therapies designed to maximize the child’s skills and potential.

Occupational therapists are experts in social, emotional and physiological effects of illness and help individuals of any age maximize their independence, safety and success by completing necessary and meaningful daily activities or “occupations.”

For children, these activities might include playing and socializing with peers, completing school-related fine motor tasks, such as writing and scissor use, and completing self-care tasks, such as dressing, grooming and self-feeding. Pediatric OTs address all of these types of skills through fun, play-based activities.

In older children and adults, occupations can include activities of daily living (ADL’s: bathing, dressing, grooming) as well as instrumental activities of daily living which are more complex and include managing finances, driving, laundry, shopping and managing medications.

Since autism spectrum disorder often interferes with a person’s ability to successfully engage in a wide range of daily tasks, OT plays a critical role in helping them obtain their maximum potential. 

Jesse Ause, MS, OTR/L, C/SI is a certified occupational therapist with Beaufort Memorial HealthLink for Children in Beaufort and Bluffton.