Children with autism often experience delays in motor skill development. When combined with their communication and behavioral issues, physical difficulties can make it very challenging for autistic children to thrive.
Physical therapy is a successful means of improving motor functions in autistic children and teaching them to be confident and comfortable in their bodies.
Here’s a closer look at how physical therapy can help children with autism learn, grow, and enjoy their life to the fullest.
What Is Autism Spectrum Disorder?
Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a neurological and developmental disorder characterized by a range of social, communication, and behavior challenges. Autism affects an estimated 1 in 54 children in the United States. This condition is three to four times more common in boys than in girls, and boys often exhibit more obvious signs of autism than girls.
The effects of autism and the severity of symptoms vary from child to child. While some children with autism spectrum disorder require significant support in their daily activities, others may go on to live independent, productive, and fulfilling lives.
When is autism diagnosed?
Autism spectrum disorder is usually diagnosed in early childhood. The signs of autism often appear already around the age of two, when between 80% to 90% of parents start noticing symptoms that disrupt their child's daily functioning. However, some children develop normally until toddlerhood, when they start losing previously gained skills and stop acquiring new ones. This condition is known as regressive autism.
What are the symptoms of autism?
The core signs of autism spectrum disorder are repetitive behaviors and challenges in communication and social interactions.
Other symptoms include:
- Avoiding eye contact
- Preference for playing alone
- Little or no interest in peers
- Not engaging in creative play
- Rejection of physical contact
- Trouble understanding other people’s feelings and body language
- Delayed speech and language skills
- Repeating the same words or phrases
- Becoming upset by minor changes
- A need to keep routines
- Obsessive interests in objects or parts of objects
- Short attention span, except for favorite activities or topics
- Repeating movements, for example, hand flapping, spinning, and rocking
- Aggression, self-injury, and temper tantrums
- Unusual reactions to sound, smell, taste, sight, or touch.
The Physical Difficulties That Children With Autism Face
In addition to challenges related to communication and social interactions, children with autism spectrum disorder often experience delays in physical development. In most cases, both gross and fine motor skills are affected by autism.
Gross motor skills are large movements done using the arms, legs, and feet such as jumping and running. Children usually master these skills by watching and imitating others.
Due to their lack of interest in other people, decreased attention span, tactile sensitivities, and aversions, many children with autism are delayed in their gross motor skills development.
They are on average 6 months behind their neurotypical peers with regard to their gross motor skills.
Fine motor skills, on the other hand, consist of intricate hand and finger movements that are required for everyday tasks like scribbling, grasping toys, tying knots, and self-feeding. Coordination difficulties as well as lack of core strength and stability can make fine motor skills challenging for children with autism spectrum disorder. Even after having mastered these skills, autistic children may have difficulty executing them smoothly.
Physical issues that frequently accompany autism include:
- Delays in walking, jumping, skipping, and running
- Trouble copying movements of other people
- Slow or unpredictable movements
- Limited coordination
- Poor balance
- Problems with planning and repeating movements
- Difficulty performing movements in a specific order
- Delays in fine motor activities such as writing and drawing
- Poor eye-hand coordination
- Low muscle tone that may cause clumsiness and falls
- Difficulty controlling posture
- Unstable walking or running
- Toe walking
- Difficulty going up or down steps
- Issues using sensory information for movement.
The more severe the disorder, the slower your child’s progress will be in these areas. Early identification and treatment of motor skill issues in autistic children are essential in helping them catch up with their neurotypical peers.
How Can a Physical Therapist Help an Autistic Child?
A physical therapist is a trained medical professional who diagnoses and treats patients with conditions that affect their movement and prevent them from performing everyday activities.
Working closely with multidisciplinary teams of speech therapists, occupational therapists, and psychologists, physical therapists help develop, maintain, and restore optimal physical functioning in children and adults with autism.
The therapist will start by evaluating your child's motor functional performance and delays. Based on this assessment, the therapist will develop goals that will allow your child to participate as fully as possible in daily routines at home and in school. There is no standard treatment for children with autism spectrum disorder and your physical therapists will personalize a program to meet the strengths and needs of your child.
In addition to teaching new motor skills and improving the existing ones, a physical therapist will work with your child on acquiring the movement patterns necessary for taking part in activities with peers. Treatment strategies will be gradually adjusted as your child learns new skills and starts functioning more independently.
Physical therapists always take the autism diagnosis into consideration when designing treatment sessions. Although all physical therapists are educated to treat children and adults with autism spectrum disorder, you may want to look specifically for a pediatric physical therapist with experience in treating autistic children.
Physical therapists may also offer other types of therapies suitable for children with autism spectrum disorder, such as hippotherapy, dance and movement therapy, music therapy, recreational therapy, and even play therapy.
What does a physical therapy session look like?
Sessions with a physical therapist are designed to be safe, friendly, and encouraging for children of all ages. Although physiotherapy sessions are structured, they may still look a lot like play.
Typically, a pediatric physical therapy gym will have balls, swings, and slides. Exercise-based physiotherapy treatments include a variety of activities such as jumping, clapping hands, skipping, throwing, kicking, or catching a ball, to help your child improve balance, posture, and strength.
For younger children, physical therapy sessions usually last between 20 and 30 minutes. As your child gets older, sessions can be extended up to an hour. Besides weekly training, your child's therapist will often provide you with a home exercise program and activities to help your child progress.
Physical therapy in the early years: birth to age 3
Physical therapists work with the youngest children on their basic motor skills such as rolling, sitting, standing, and running. A therapist will devise fun and engaging activities to help your child learn age-appropriate physical skills and use both free and structured play to improve strength and coordination.
Physical therapy in the school years: ages 3 to 18
For school-age children, physical therapists focus on more advanced skills such as skipping, kicking, throwing, and catching a ball. These skills are necessary not only for physical development, but also for social interaction and participation in activities with peers. Your child will also learn to move as independently as possible throughout the home, school, and other settings.
A physical therapist may work with your child either one-on-one in the classroom or in groups that include neurotypical and autistic children to work on the social aspects of physical skills. During physical therapy sessions, your child will learn how to:
- Copy the movements of other children
- Understand concepts of direction, body, and spatial awareness
- Develop better coordination and more stable posture
- Take part in physical education and other activities
- Enhance play skills, and
- Increase fitness and stamina.
What’s more, your child’s physical therapist will help promote skills such as self-control, listening, and taking turns, and teach you how to use physical therapy activities to encourage your child to participate in home and school routines.
Physical therapy during adulthood: age 18+
Physical therapists can help adults with autism spectrum disorder increase their independence when it comes to the activities of daily living. Besides, they develop personalized exercise routines that promote physical fitness, body coordination, and recreation skills. These skills allow adults with autism to have a healthy lifestyle and enjoy a variety of activities with friends and family.
Where Does The Physical Therapy Treatment Occur?
Physical therapy for children on the autism spectrum may occur in a variety of places including the home, school, or outpatient clinic setting.
Children under the age of three who are eligible for physical therapy through the Early Intervention programs will receive therapy in their natural environment, that is, their home, daycare, or another place where they spend most of their days. If your child’s physical therapy is provided as an educational service, it will take place at school.
How Often Should a Physical Therapy Treatment Occur for a Child with ASD?
If your child receives services through the education system, the frequency of therapy sessions will be determined by the Individual Family Service Plan (IFSP) or Individualized Education Program (IEP) team based on your child’s needs. The same team will also establish the length of sessions and the goals of treatment. As a parent, you will have a say in any decisions regarding different aspects of your child's physical therapy.
In a clinic setting, the treatment details are determined by the referring physician, parent or caretaker, and therapist. The number of hours of therapy provided by your child’s health insurance can also affect the frequency of sessions.
The Best Physical Therapists for Autistic Children in the Atlanta Area
If you live in the Atlanta area, you can choose among many top-rated physical therapy services for your child. Here are only a few:
Hopebridge centers use innovative therapy approaches to help children with autism improve their motor skills. They have several locations in the Atlanta area.
A team of pediatric physical therapists focuses on improving gross motor skills in children with developmental delays.
This service specializes in home-based physical therapy for children of all ages.
Experienced physical therapists provide evaluation, intervention, and consultation in everything from muscle tone and posture control to increasing strength and endurance.
The Building Blocks Pediatrics therapists develop treatment plans to enhance motor functions in addition to devising extensive home programs for families.
A team of physical therapists with experience in working with autism spectrum disorder will help your child restore essential motor functions and achieve independence through play and exercise.
This service provides physical therapy for children with autism and other disabilities. They also offer free online Growth Ability Patterns (GAP) assessments and free first consultations.
Through a collaborative relationship between parents and therapists, Therapyland is dedicated to providing physical therapy to help children with autism and other conditions reach their highest potential.