According to research conducted by Autism Speaks, the number of children diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder has tripled in the last fifteen years. This dramatic increase of children on the autistic spectrum has created an ever-increasing need for physical therapists trained to treat these uniquely gifted children.
The CDC defines Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) as “a developmental disability that can cause significant social, communication and behavioral challenges.” Children with this disorder often have low muscle tone, balance impairment, and poor gross and fine motor skills. Physical therapy is beneficial for developing these skills.
Physical therapists specializing in treating children with ASD use many techniques to engage their patients due to their unique needs. Play therapy is often used to keep the child’s attention and work on critical skills. Physical therapists will use a variety of toys and games to accomplish therapeutic goals. Because children with ASD function better in familiar environments with minimal interruptions to their routines, these specialized physical therapists often travel to the child’s home, school, or daycare to do therapy sessions.
Alex Klurfeld has seen the need for trained physical therapists for patients with ASD and is meeting those needs in his practice. Helping all people live their best lives through physical therapy has been his lifelong passion. In this article, we will examine the benefits of physical therapy for children with ASD.
As implied by its name, ASD presents differently in each individual. It is a true spectrum, with some children having only minor impairments and others with severe symptoms. But some common traits span across the spectrum and its extremes. One of those common traits is low muscle tone. This lack of strength can impair a child’s ability to crawl, walk, and play.
Poor wrist and hand strength in school-aged children can cause problems with properly holding pencils, writing, coloring, and holding scissors. Physical therapists work with these children to build strength. They may use play equipment such as swings, balls, and even silly putty to build these muscles. Silly putty and stress balls are often used to build those muscles. Swinging on a swing or playing a game of tag can build leg muscles. Throwing and catching balls works on the arm and upper body strength.
Children with ASD quite frequently struggle with balance and core body strength. A properly trained physical therapist will create a therapy program that addresses these problems. Core strength and balance are built through a variety of play activities. Swinging on swings, walking on balance beams, and swimming are just a few activities that will help develop these skills. Because water is often calming to children with ASD, the physical therapist may do their therapy at a community pool if there is not a private pool available.
The older children with ASD get, the more likely they are to feel out of place or notice their differences from other children. Being unable to complete schoolwork, participate in gym activities, or play team sports can be isolating and embarrassing.
A physical therapist can improve a child’s self-esteem by helping to develop and build the underlying skills they lack to accomplish these things. As a child feels more comfortable in their abilities, they will often begin to participate in social activities with their peers.
Another way that physical therapists can help with social interactions and development is by doing group therapy sessions with other children. These types of therapy sessions allow children to feel less alone and work on basic social skills such as turn-taking and sharing.
Building physical fitness and endurance can be a challenge for children with ASD. For some children with ASD, physical exercise presents sensory challenges. The feel of sweat or even the sound of hard breathing can sometimes be overwhelming to their senses. A trained physical therapist will know how to build their fitness and endurance slowly without over-stimulating their senses.
Another challenge to physical fitness can be the child’s consuming interest in other activities. Children with ASD can become hyper-focused on one or a few areas of interest. Anything activities outside of those interests are ignored or refused. A trained physical therapist will know how to include those interests while still accomplishing therapeutic goals. For example, if the child is obsessed with video games, a physical therapist may include a video game that encourages physical exercise. Pokemon Go has been used successfully by therapists to promote physical activity and endurance building.
It is imperative that parents are trained to continue their child’s physical therapy at home and beyond the sessions with the physical therapist. A physical therapist can only make so much progress in the short time they see their client weekly. For these skills to grow, they must be included in the child’s regular life and schedule.
This repetition is critical for children with ASD. Children with ASD learn through established routines and patterns. Parents need to be trained not only on the exercises that the therapist is doing but also on how they do them with the child. This training needs to be precise, down to the exact words used by the therapist. Children with ASD do not generalize information or extrapolate. The parent must replicate the exercise exactly to form a lasting pattern of behavior. As with anything related to autism, the extent of this need varies from child to child.
Physical therapy can be an integral part of increasing the quality of life for a child with ASD. It is essential to find a therapist who understands Autism Spectrum Disorder and navigating its challenges while accomplishing therapeutic goals. These therapists often use out-of-the-box methods and techniques to achieve the best possible outcome for their patients.