Can – and Should – Physical Therapy Be Used to Treat Autism?
Read on to understand how it is possible to treat autism with the help of a capable physical therapy professional
What is Autism?
April is World Autism month, and although World Autism Awareness Day 2020 was on the 2nd, having compassion and building a better understanding of the diagnosis any day of the year serves an important purpose. Simply put, autism impacts the neurological development of those that experience it. The impact of autism may present itself in a variety of ways including causing issues with communication and social interaction like the following:
- Restricted interests in activities and people
- Repetitive patterns in behavior
- Abnormal tone of voice, vocal affect or facial expressions
- Delays in learning to speak or speech comprehension deficits
- Avoiding eye contact
- Lack of coordination or desire to interact with others
- Social withdrawal
As with other developmental and neurological disorders, those that have been diagnosed with autism will not always display the same characteristics – and those that do will not experience them to the same degrees. There are different levels of severity when it comes to an autism diagnosis, which is why it is imperative for parents and caregivers to work with medical professionals and receive a correct diagnosis in order to determine the best methods for treatment and care.
What Options Exist to Treat Autism?
Since many patients are diagnosed with autism at an early age, there are many different ways that can be used to treat autism. Following a diagnosis, medical professionals will work with both patients and their carers to find the best treatment possible, which often requires a number of different solutions to be used together. The goal for those with an autism diagnosis is to find the ways – and utilize available tools – to live the best life possible, and this is only done with careful management of the condition, as well as by making adjustments as progress is seen and felt.
Depending on the severity of the autism diagnosis, options for autism treatment often include social skills training, speech and language therapy, nutritional therapy, cognitive and behavioral management therapies and physical therapy. One factor to keep in mind when it comes to choosing how to treat autism is that the best treatments will focus on the individual characteristics of each person – not on the general diagnosis. Just because a certain tactic has been proven to be effective for some autistic patients doesn’t mean that it will be the same for all. There is a great deal of trial and error when it comes to finding methods that work for individual patients, but once these are learned, things will change and often improve rapidly.
How Physical Therapy Can Help Treat Autism
The first thing to understand is that while they are most commonly known for helping people recover from injuries or illness, physical therapists do much more than that. The underlying goal of all physical therapy professionals is to provide care and assistance to patients that need to regain strength, improve mobility and fine-tune their motor skills while becoming healthy. Each of these is an effective facet of recovery and improving health, but these are also skills and areas where those that have been diagnosed with autism likely need help.
Most people also assume that physical therapists only work within their clinics or facilities, and focus on things like endurance exercises and rebuilding strength, but they are also very capable of helping patients establish these things in the first place, too. While nothing may be physically wrong with an autistic patient, physical therapy professionals are able to use some of the following methods to treat autism in patients of all ages.
A physical therapist may use these exercises to treat autism:
- Dance and movement therapies
- Horseback riding (hippotherapy)
- Aquatic therapy
- Recreational and play therapies
- Balance and coordination improvement techniques
- Motor planning therapy (sitting, rolling, standing, running, using their bodies in a series of planned and functional movements)
Why Physical Therapy to Treat Autism is Recommended
Many physical therapy patients attend their sessions, learn and improve in the ways that they need to, and return to their daily lives and routines fairly quickly. When it comes to physical therapy as a way to treat an autism diagnosis, it’s not about moving forward, it’s about maintaining this progress. As children age and become teens and then adults, their environments will constantly change, but that doesn’t mean that it will be easy for them to adapt. Much in the same way that a traditional physical therapy plan will evolve as patients regain strength and abilities, therapy to treat autism will do the same, except it will help them adapt to the ever changing social surroundings that they face.
Sessions to treat autism may start from a young age (or whenever the diagnosis is made and treatment of this nature is sought) and focus on motor skills and strength or coordination improvement. As time passes, the physical therapists may follow their patients into environments like their homes or their schools, helping them to adapt to these locations and learn from themselves as well as the people around them. One of the most difficult aspects of living with autism (even mild cases) is social interaction, which becomes more apparent as people work their way through school and eventually the adult world. The more capable someone with an autism diagnosis is of interacting with their peers, the more likely it is that they will feel comfortable in their surroundings, which can help to build confidence.
For many people that have autism, the goal is to live the lives that they want to live, which involves constant growth, learning and changes. Whereas a traditional physical therapy session only includes a patient and the therapy team, a very unique change is that for those with an autism diagnosis, the therapist will want to include “typical” individuals like students, parents, teachers and peers in order to help simulate real life scenarios. Modeling is an important aspect of using physical therapy to treat autism, and ensuring that a patient knows how to appropriately react and respond to a situation is imperative for success.
Seeking a Physical Therapist After an Autism Diagnosis? Start Here!
Physical therapy sessions are always grounded in providing assistance to those that need it when it comes to getting healthy and becoming stronger and more capable, but this is doubly important for people that have been diagnosed with autism. Without the ability to participate in activities like playing with siblings or friends, taking part in gym classes, or having to coordination to complete daily tasks like getting dressed, eating or even communicating with those around them, autistic individuals may feel isolated, which can lead to more issues later on in life, and this is what using physical therapy to treat autism aims to eliminate. A physical therapist won’t be the only person that is able to help someone with an autism diagnosis, but they can be a valuable part of the treatment plan from beginning to end.
Want to learn more but aren’t sure where to start? Reach out to a physical therapy provider using the BetterPT clinic locator to find a therapy team or professional in your area, or simply download the BetterPT app for the same purpose. Unsure of whether or not physical therapy will help to treat autism for you or your loved one? Schedule a telehealth visit with the BetterTelehealth platform and have some of your questions answered before moving forward with physical therapy to treat autism.