Physical therapy isn’t just for a pulled muscle or lower back pain. Nowadays, it’s being used in a whole new context: for children with autism. While the connection may not be immediately clear, physical therapy is a rich area for improving autistic children’s motor skills, strength and balance.
Besides delays in social and cognitive development, autistic children often show setbacks in physical development. These include typical childhood milestones such as walking, or even basic motor tasks such as brushing their teeth. As parents of autistic children know well, these physical differences can manifest as low muscle tone or a lack of coordination. These delays may also affect their child’s social and emotional wellbeing.
While the needs of every autistic child are unique, a physical therapist can work to improve these key physical skills. Ideally, this physical therapy incorporates play and toys, so that the child enjoys attaining these new skills. With these new physical improvements, autistic children may also see secondary benefits that overlap with social skills, as well as increased independence and participation.
What is physical therapy?
Physical therapists are healthcare professionals who help improve patients’ ability to move and perform physical tasks. This therapy is highly customized to the individual, depending on their abilities and/or pain. It’s also recommended as preventive care so that the patient can avoid future physical problems.
Why physical therapy for autistic children?
Physical therapy has been routinely ignored in treating autism, especially in children. However, it may be an effective option for improving four core areas in autistic children’s care, as identified by the Center for Autism Research:
Tasks that require strong muscles, such as walking, running, kicking, throwing, sitting, standing.
The ability to coordinate muscles and nerves for a specific, complicated task. (For example, hand-eye coordination.)
Increasing muscle tone in order to increase endurance and not get easily tired.
Being able to think through the next steps in physical activity, as well as cultivate independence and participation.
Physical therapy can focus on these areas in order to help an autistic child take on more tasks, or improve strength in these tasks. Much of this therapy may hone “recess skills” such as throwing or catching a ball, jumping rope or running during a game of tag. A physical therapist can isolate these skills and work to improve them one-by-one so that the autistic child is able to build skills and strength over time.
Another key aspect of these sessions is to improve endurance. An autistic child may face serious difficulty in repeating a certain task over time. For example, he/she may get tired after walking, playing on the swingset or bouncing a ball. Physical therapy can help strengthen endurance and muscle tone so that these activities become less strenuous. In turn, the child will become more confident with these skills and want to perform them more often.
A typical physical therapy session
As mentioned above, a physical therapy session may look a lot like recess. Therapy spaces may include lots of playground-like equipment, such as balls, slides, swings, or any other real-life play items. However, these activities are heavily designed and supervised by the physical therapist—like the ones at Better Health Chiropractic in Anchorage—to accomplish specific tasks.