Autism Spectrum Disorder and Physical Therapy

Autism Spectrum Disorder and Physical Therapy

How does Autism Spectrum Disorder affect motor movement?

We include movement in our social, emotional and physical lives from an early age. At 4 months, a child will kick their arms and legs when they see something funny or an 18 months old will bring their As the child grows, the length and complexity of movement sequences become more sophisticated. However, children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) are often unable to coordinate the variety of movements that are required to accomplish these interactions, as seen from studying the home videos of ASD children in their infancy.

These differences in motor movement development are due to a lot of factors. Most children suffering from ASD find it difficult to coherently time, plan the sequence, and execute the movements in order to relay or do something, like reach for an object or crawl towards somebody. This may be affected by the fact that they have developed poor sensory processes and reflexes. The information that they receive from their environment may not be the same as is perceived by other children. They may be over or under sensitive to smell, light, touch, sound, sight or movement. A child with ASD is also likely to suffer from poor muscle development, meaning his muscle tone and stiffness are decreased. This may require the child to put in more effort and energy to move which in turn will delay its sensory and motor development.

How does physical therapy help with Autism Spectrum Disorder?

A physical therapy evaluation assesses a child’s neuromuscular, musculoskeltal and cardiopulmonary systems. The therapist will essentially look at the child’s ability to sense his environment suitably and control his movements such as walking, jumping, running, climbing, kicking. Using play techniques, the therapist observes how a child uses his balance reactions, protective reactions, motor planning skills and the strategies that the child implements to move in and out of positions.  The therapist will also observe the child’s posture in different positions and how it affects their breathing, oral and vocal motor control. They will also observe the child in its natural environment and assess which factors limit and facilitate their motor skills, which muscles and joints the child overuses and which are being underused such as in children who persistently walk on their toes or those who lock their knees and elbows.

Physical therapy treatment focuses on improving a child’s posture so that it facilitates overall muscle and motor development, teaches it to improve balance and how to plan and execute complex movements, maximize sensory processing and organization and enable them to participate in more activities. Additionally, therapists also work with the family to help the child develop and maintain a healthy lifestyle and participate in community and peer activities.

As infants, we learn how to use movement to bond and communicate with others. Limitations in motor skills may affect overall development. This is where physical therapy comes in, it helps children with ASD live a successful, independent life.