Happy Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) awareness month! Many recognize speech therapy as an important component of the overall treatment plan for ASD due to difficulty with spoken language, eye contact, facial expressions, and emotional recognition. Although language deficits are a core symptom of autism, children may also demonstrate difficulty with coordination, motor planning, and hand-eye coordination. Therefore, physical therapy can help facilitate gross motor development to increase participation in everyday activities and social activities such as gym class, sports, playing, etc.
What are the signs and symptoms of Autism Spectrum Disorder?
Social communication challenges
Difficulty with social interaction including initiating and maintaining topics during conversation
Children with ASD may present with poor eye contact, difficulty gauging personal space, and decreased facial expressions
Difficulty identifying emotions
Difficulties may include recognizing one’s own emotions as well as the feelings of others. They experience trouble expressing their emotions during a variety of situations. Also, children may lack knowledge of when to seek emotional support or provide emotional comfort to others.
Repetitive behaviors present differently for each individual but some examples may include repetitive body movements (arm flapping, spinning), motions with objects (spinning wheels), staring at lights, and/or ritualistic behaviors (lining up toys in order)
What physical difficulties may a child with autism experience?
Children with ASD may present with the following physical challenges:
A developmental delay is when a child is lacking the age-appropriate skills in one or more of the developmental areas: cognitive, social-emotional, speech and language, fine and gross motor. If a child demonstrates a physical developmental delay, they may have difficulty rolling over, holding up their head, sitting up, crawling, and eventually walking and jumping.
Low muscle tone:
Muscle tone is the amount of tension in muscles used to hold up our bodies while sitting or standing. Low muscle tone is when the muscles require more effort to move properly while doing an activity. They may have difficulty maintaining good posture when standing and sitting, and often affects their overall gross motor development.
Difficulty with motor planning.
Motor planning is the ability to conceive, plan, and then execute the physical skill in the correct sequence. Motor planning assists children in attempting new tasks without the need to consciously learn the steps to each new task. Motor planning arises from organizing sensory input from the body, and having adequate body awareness and environmental perception. Children who have trouble with motor planning may experience difficulty carrying out new tasks, following physical commands when given verbal instructions, and appearing clumsy while executing new tasks.
Decreased body awareness.
Children with ASD may lack awareness of where their bodies are in relation to their environment, causing children to become accident-prone or present clumsy.
Who is a Physical Therapist?
Physical therapists, often referred to as PTs, are professionals that help people gain strength, mobility and gross motor skills. They are experts in motor development, body function, strength, and movement. Pediatric physical therapists can help children with a variety of disorders gain functional physical skills so they can participate in everyday activities.
What does physical therapy target?
Basic skills. Physical therapists can help children develop the primary gross motor skills of sitting, rolling, standing and running if they are experiencing a developmental delay.
Coordination. Physical therapists focus on the necessary muscles and skills to improve balance and coordination in everyday activities.
Improve reciprocal-play skills. Help children use motor planning to coordination throwing and catching a ball, and other activities that involves interacting and reacting to another person.
Development of motor imitation skills. In order to learn new skills, a child must be efficient in imitation and following physical directions. PTs can offer strategies and practice of imitating movements.
Increasing stamina and fitness. For older children, physical therapy may focus on skills required to participate in play and sports such as kicking, throwing, catching, and running.
Parent education. PTs create home exercise programs so that family members can help facilitate building on strength, coordination, and development of specific goals into their natural environments and routines.
Why is physical activity important for children with ASD?
Physical therapy increases a child’s ability to participate in physical activities by improving strength and coordination. Once a child is able to functionally participate in physical activities, they are able to reap the many benefits of daily exercise.
Social skills. Gym class, playgrounds, and organized sports teams offer opportunities for children to develop friendships and social skills. For children with ASD, physical activity programs provide a fun, safe environment to develop and practice social interaction skills.
Improvement in behaviors. Physical activity may help decrease maladaptive behaviors and aggression. Children with ASD have difficulty expressing and understanding their feelings. Physical activity can aid in reducing stress and frustration in children, often helping them adjust in different activities without aggression.
Overall health improvements. Staying active and participating in daily physical activities can decrease the risk of general health problems in individuals with ASD, including obesity.
Increase quality of life. Daily activities such as climbing stairs, walking on the sidewalk, and going grocery shopping require the use of gross motor skills. Improving one’s strength and stamina can positively affect their participation in everyday chores and activities.
If your child has Autism Spectrum Disorder, and is experiencing difficulty with coordination, strength, and motor planning, physical therapy might be right for you. Our physical therapists at Lumiere Children’s Therapy can offer evaluations, customized treatment plans, and home exercise programs for carryover into the home.
“Does Physical Activity Have Special Benefits for People with Autism?” Autism Speaks, www.autismspeaks.org/expert-opinion/does-physical-activity-have-special-benefits-people-autism.
Morin, Amanda. “What You Need to Know About Developmental Delays.” Understood.org, www.understood.org/en/learning-attention-issues/treatments-approaches/early-intervention/what-you-need-to-know-about-developmental-delays.
“Motor Planning.” North Shore Pediatric Therapy, nspt4kids.com/healthtopics-and-conditions-database/motor-planning/.
“Physical Deficits.” Mental Help Physical Deficits Comments, www.mentalhelp.net/articles/physical-deficits/.
Rudy, Lisa Jo. “What Can a Physical Therapist Do for a Your Autistic Child?” Verywell Health, 24 July 2018, www.verywellhealth.com/physical-therapy-as-a-treatment-for-autism-260052.
Ries, Eric. “Physical Therapy for People With Autism.” Physical Therapy for People With Autism, www.apta.org/PTinMotion/2018/7/Feature/Autism/.
“What Are the Symptoms of Autism?” Autism Speaks, www.autismspeaks.org/what-are-symptoms-autism.