Occupational Therapy: Assisting Kiddos with Autism Participate in Life

October 22, 2012 - cornerstoneac

Occupational Therapy: Assisting Kiddos with Autism Participate in Life

“The practice of occupational therapy means the therapeutic use of occupations, including everyday life activities with individuals, groups, populations, or organizations to support participation, performance, and function in roles and situations in home, school, workplace, community, and other settings.” (AOTA.org)

What a mouth full! In simpler terms occupational therapists help people of all ages take part in the things they want and/or need to do in their daily lives through therapeutic uses arranged around everyday activities (or occupations).



Rachel Timmons is Cornerstone Autism Center’s occupational therapist. She provides the children who have autism with tools that they will need to function to the best of their abilities.


Jarrad: First I would like to clarify for some the folks reading this blog what the differences are between Occupational Therapy and Physical Therapy?

Rachel: OT (Occupational Therapy) focuses on participation of a certain activity. This participation can be in anything… dressing, eating, writing, school related tasks, driving, and the list goes on. A lot of times OT’s will work on fine motor tasks, or range of motion (ROM) but the ultimate goal is to increase participation in daily tasks, whatever that may be.

PT (Physical Therapy) focuses on mobility, strength, ROM, and walking in order to address the participation needs of a client. So for example, a PT may work on muscle strength and ROM of an elderly patient’s hip, while the OT takes the mobility/strength of the hip and applies it to work on that patient lifting their leg to get into a car. Typically, PT’s are not needed in many cases in children with autism, unless there is a muscular related problem, or if other diagnoses are present such as cerebral palsy.

Jarrad: Do you take into account the environment that the children live in and interact with when evaluating them, creating a program and treating? How do you do that and how does that make a difference in your therapy?

Rachel: I try my hardest to think about the home and school environments, because their environment directly affects their participation in activities throughout the day. I may need to assess the environment to make modifications to assist in increasing the participation. Example: a child who struggles with handwriting: the environmental aspects may be: the chair is too high or too low, so adjust the height of the chair to provide optimal position for the arm to handwrite. The lighting in the room may be too bright or fluorescent, so cover the light fixture, or completely change the environment; those are just a couple examples of how the environment can affect a simple activity such as handwriting.  Currently, I try to make myself available to parents of Cornerstone so that together we can establish the OT goals for the child, OT is a very family centered therapy, so I try to keep it that way.

Jarrad: Is there an emotional component that you take in to account when treating individuals? And why take into account psychological or emotional components?

Rachel: Always- if I ignored emotional components when treating and intervening with the children then I would never make any progress. There must be emotional ties to therapy; it needs to be child centered in order to see effective change and progress.

Jarrad: I see you carrying a wide assortment of belongings with you when you enter the center. What are these materials and how do they help you with the kiddos?

Rachel: AH YES… the “goody bag of OT.” Since I travel between centers, I bring a lot of things for therapy with me. These range from specialized swings to incorporate vestibular input into sessions, balancing disks or beams to work on trunk support and balance, fine motor tasks to increase dexterity of the children, handwriting paper and tools, scooter boards for increased motion and strengthening for the kids, some specialized feeding utensils… the list goes on and on and on…I try to mix up the stuff I bring, but ultimately the goal is to provide an array of things that the child finds interesting and intriguing to use in therapy. I try my hardest to provide and to structure my OT sessions in a way that it is “child-directed.” So that the child chooses the task or the game and I use my skills and knowledge to work on specific OT goals and manipulate it to make it therapeutic. If the child is enjoying it and is an active participant in the activity, the better the outcome. Sure I can work at handwriting sitting at a desk, but isn’t it 10 times better when sitting on the trampoline and writing a letter to outer space and having to jump 10 times and spin around 3 times to send it to space?? I think so! So the OT goody bag is ever-changing… and never the same.

Jarrad: What about working with a child who has autism is rewarding for you?

Rachel: Everything… not once have I ever treated a kid who is exactly the same as another child I have treated… that’s why I LOVE OT. They all have different strengths and weaknesses and like different things. My goal is to increase participation of the child in ANY aspect, if I can do that and help the child and their families, I’m satisfied! 

Jarrad: Thanks Rachel for answering my questions. Do you have anything else you would like to say before we end?

Rachel: I think the most important thing to remember is the word “Participation.” That’s what OT is for and that’s what sets it apart. For parents, I want them to know, if they have any concern or goal or task they wish their child had greater participation in, DO NOT HESITATE to contact me and we will work out a solution and plan to address that goal and increase the child’s participation for that task!



Jarrad Shaw is a recent Purdue University graduate in Human Development & Family Services. He is the Cornerstone Autism Center & Autism Foundation’s content, social media, & development intern. He focuses on several forms of web & blog content, & building relations with the internet community on various social networking sites for the two organizations. He has a love for helping those in need & a facination for the always evolving tech world & game industry. When Jarrad is not reading the latest in the social marketing sphere he spends his time playing video games with his friends & working on his new side project, producing electronica music for mobile game platforms. You can contact him by e-mail at: jshaw@cornerstoneautismcenter.com.

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October 22, 2012, cornerstoneac

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