The month of April heralds multiple awareness campaigns that are near and dear to our hearts! So, join us as we raise awareness for both National Autism Month and National Occupational Therapy Month as well as explore the connection between the two.
Identifying And Diagnosing Autism
Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), commonly referred to as “autism”, is a condition that impacts the development of social, communication and behavioral skills. People with ASD often interact and learn in ways that are different from others, which can sometimes result in extremely gifted or severely challenged cognitive abilities.
However, diagnosing ASD can be difficult since it’s based solely on careful observations of behavior and development. In fact, the indicators of autism are not visual, so it would be next to impossible to determine if someone has ASD based on appearance alone.
Signs of ASD typically appear in early childhood, sometimes as early as 18 months and can be as subtle as a child avoiding eye contact. To help identify these behaviors, the CDC has published a checklist of developmental milestones for both parental and medical use. Here is a small list of behaviors, both mild and severe, that may be prevalent in children or adults with ASD:
- Atypical speech patterns
- Difficulty reading body language
- Repetitive behaviors
- Nonverbal communication
- Difficulty processing change in routines
- Extreme sensitivity to sensory stimuli
As there is no cure for autism, early identification and intervention treatment is critical in providing children with ASD the resources they need to develop the social, communication as well as behavioral skills necessary to improve their quality of life and reach their full potential. Early intervention may include:
- Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) is a form of therapy that involves observation and developing a custom treatment plan to encourage desired behaviors as well as work on pivotal skills. This form of therapy can be started as soon as one years old under the Early Start Denver Model, a program that imitates ABA on a broader scale to be more easily digestible to young toddlers.
- Speech and Language Pathology (SLP) is a form of developmental therapy designed to improve communication skills.
- Occupational Therapy (OT) is another form of developmental treatment that incorporates elements of physical therapy and focuses on teaching patients how to live independently via daily routine exposure (i.e. brushing teeth, walking up stairs or cooking).
Children who receive early intervention can make significant progress in their overall skill development. Unfortunately, diagnosis is often delayed, even when the signs are clear, preventing many people with ASD from receiving the benefits of early intervention programs.
Living With Autism
Beyond the challenges of living with a developmental disorder, autism can be a costly condition. Medical expenses for children with ASD are up to six times higher than other children and intensive behavioral interventions can cost an additional $40,000 to $60,000 per year. These expenditures are one of many reasons why it’s important to fund research as well as offer financial support through donations and fundraisers.
Autism Awareness Month: Ways To Advocate
As one of the fastest growing developmental disorders in the US, there are now more opportunities than ever to get involved. During this month of advocacy, learn more about how you can offer your support to the autism community:
- Donating: Check out this list of 20 Autism charities accepting donations.
- Fundraising: The Organization For Autism Research (OAR) offers a fundraising toolkit that gives you the information you need to set up your own fundraising effort.
- Sponsorship: AutismSociety.Org has several events with sponsorship opportunities.
- Advocacy: The Autistic Self Advocacy Network (ASAN) is a nonprofit organization that fights for ASD representation in policy-making.
In addition to Autism Awareness Month, it’s also National Occupational Therapy Month, a form of treatment that can go hand in hand with ASD.
Occupational therapists work closely with people who are living with injury, illness or disability to develop strategies that manage daily living and determine what alterations can be made to their patient’s environment to better complement the scope of their abilities. This form of therapy focuses heavily on helping others achieve their personal goals, elevating and maintaining quality of life, regaining independence as well as helping people return to or break into the workforce. When coupled with physical therapy, occupational therapists can benefit patients with the following conditions (and more):
- Traumatic brain injuries
- Rheumatoid arthritis
- Orthopedic injuries
- Post-surgery recovery issues
- Significantly injured such as amputees or burn victims
Additionally, occupational therapy is very common in school settings to help support children with developmental conditions, such as Autism Spectrum Disorder.
Occupational Therapy (OT) and Autism (ASD)
When a child with ASD enters school, occupational therapy becomes a vital component of treatment. In fact, several therapy and rehabilitation clinics have developed integrated occupational therapy programs to supplement education with growth strategies that encourage young children with ASD to work on forming independent habits.
Upon entering middle school, it’s unfortunately all too common for reduced access to occupational therapy in favor of behaviorist and paraeducator support. This suggests a shift in priorities, either by the patient, their support system or maybe even the school itself. However, occupational therapy is designed to benefit all ages and it’s worth looking at external programs to continue treatment during this pivotal age.
As a person with autism transitions into their teenage years, occupational therapy techniques transition with them. Depending on the severity of their disorder, occupational therapy could become more hands-off or simply evolve into addressing other skills and behaviors in preparation for adulthood. For more insight on how occupational therapists might address teenage situations, take a look at this guide: Living With An Autism Spectrum Disorder: The High School Years.
While early intervention for ASD is one of the most significant ways to establish and maintain quality of life, many people with autism pursue occupational therapy into adulthood as well. From learning how to manage daily living, such as chores and self-grooming, to developing healthy habits to reduce stress and build recreational skills, occupational therapy can benefit people with autism of all ages.
National Occupational Therapy Month: Ways To Advocate
The American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA) has compiled informational videos and resources to help you spread occupational therapy awareness. From promotional speaking to contacting local papers and submitting educational articles, there’s a myriad of opportunities to help advocate for the OT profession!
- Take action: Due to the Balanced Budget Act of 2018, occupational and physical therapist assistants are seeing significant payment reductions, preventing healthcare from being delivered to medically underserved areas that depend on the availability of therapist assistants for help. Urge your member of Congress to pass the SMART Act, a bill proposed to mitigate these changes.
- Shop the official OT catalog: Show your support with event products from the 2022 catalog featuring this year’s theme: Occupational Therapy: Empowering Everyday Living.
Here at Raintree, we recognize the incredible impact that occupational therapists have for developmental disorders and we strive to do our part to ensure that providers can focus on delivering quality care. By raising awareness, occupational therapists as well as people with autism benefit from donations, increased research efforts, important policy changes and more.