What is Autism? How can Occupational Therapy help kids ‘on the spectrum’?

Children living with Autism come in all shapes and sizes and there is no one size that fits all,

As the name suggests, there is a range or ‘spectrum’ of characteristics that kids with Autism have, and OTs who specialise in supporting kids who are ‘on the spectrum’ are specially trained to help.

How occupational helps children with autism in Sydney's northern beaches

What is Autism?

The (some would say unfortunately named) Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5) is one of the universally recognized tools used to identify people with Autism.

It categorises Autism as:

1.Persistent deficits in social communication and social interaction across multiple contexts including;

  • social-emotional reciprocity,
  • non-verbal communicative behaviours,
  • developing, maintaining and understanding relationships.

2.Restricted, repetitive patterns of behaviour, interests, or activities, as manifested by at least two of the following, currently or by history:

  • Stereotyped or repetitive motor movements, use of objects, or speech,
  • Insistence on sameness, inflexible adherence to routines, or ritualized patterns or verbal nonverbal behaviour
  • Highly restricted, fixated interests that are abnormal in intensity or focus
  • Hyper-or hypo-reactivity to sensory input or unusual interests in sensory aspects of the environment

In order for a diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder to be made, these impairments also need to be:

  • present in early development,
  • cause clinically significant impairment
  • not better explained by an intellectual disability or global developmental delay.

What does all that jargon mean?

Children on the Autism spectrum can present with a number of symptoms including, but definitely not limited to:

  • Difficulties with social interactions making and keeping friends
  • Difficulties with understanding emotions and the social cues of others
  • Specific interest areas that may seem obsessive to the outside/untrained eye
  • Difficulties with transitioning away from activities
  • Difficulties with changes to routines
  • Over or under-reactions to sensory stimuli in the environment
  • Missing social cues

And many many more.

How does OT fit into this?

Occupational therapists are trained to help anyone, of any age, access daily living activities so that they can function successfully in society.

It might be hard to work out what a child’s ‘role’ in society is or what their ‘daily occupations’ are, but essentially, a child’s ‘job’ is to:

  • Learn and pay attention
  • Play and explore
  • Go to school
  • Make and keep friends
  • Have a meaningful role in a family

How does OT help a child with Autism?

Children’s Occupational Therapists are like chameleons… our roles as OT’s change slightly with every client that we work with.

When it comes to supporting children with Autism, we look at the child as a child first…and not just a ‘problem’ that needs to be fixed.

Every child has their own personality, likes and dislikes and we keep these in mind when setting goals for our ‘on the spectrum’ kids.

What do occupational therapists do with kids with Autism?

An OT’s job is to break tasks down into achievable ‘chunks’.

OT’s may help to teach children with Autism about:


What they look like in others and what they might feel like

2.Friendship skills

How to make a friend; how to ask another child to and what to do if their peer say ‘no’

3.Social Cues

How to act in different social situations and read the social cues that tell us how other people are thinking or feeling


How to overcome a reliance on routines and develop the ability to be flexible


How to manage negative emotions when things don’t work as kids expect them to and how to problem solve logically out of a tricky situation

What do occupational therapist do for parents?

OTs who specialise in supporting kids with Autism or sensory processing difficulties can be a big help to families.

Some children on the Autism spectrum ‘meltdown’ or  withdraw because they struggle in a world that may be over-stimulating for them.

Others may appear ‘spacey’ or ‘disconnected’ because their sensory systems are under-stimulated and need to be ‘woken up’ so that they can interact and learn.

Regardless of a child’s sensory needs, OTs can help parents, teachers and caregivers of kids with Autism by developing a ‘sensory diet’ that can be put in place at home, preschool or school.

An Occupational Therapist who understands sensory processing can devise small ‘snacks’ of physical activity that are tailored specifically to the child.

When parents and teachers provide children with these sensory diet ‘snacks’ at home and school, they can help them to be ‘regulated’ enough to do what all kids do… play, interact and learn.

OT works best with early intervention

There is clinical evidence to suggest that early intervention is key to helping children on the Autism spectrum.

At a young age, children’s brains are still growing and learning.

This is the best time to intervene before learned behaviours are ingrained.

© 2016 Kids First Children’s Services

Need an OT to support your child with Autism?

Kids First’s occupational therapists have years of experience supporting children with Autism and other developmental difficulties.

We have been providing funded therapy for children eligible for the Helping Children with Autism initiative since 2009 and have extensive post-graduate training, as well as a genuine personal and professional passion, for supporting kids who are ‘on the spectrum’.

Find out more about our services for special needs kids here or contact us on (02) 9938 5419 to chat about your child’s needs.

We’re here to support you and your child - no matter what.

Chat to us today