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Physical Therapy as a Treatment for Autism


Updated June 11, 2014

Why Would a Person With Autism Need to See a Physical Therapist?

Autism is a pervasive developmental disorder. This means that most people on the autism spectrum have delays, differences or disorders in many areas -- including gross and fine motor skills. Children on the spectrum may have low muscle tone, or have a tough time with coordination and sports. These issues can interfere with basic day-to-day functioning -- and they're almost certain to interfere with social and physical development.

Children with autism would rarely be termed physically disabled (though there are some autistic children with very low muscle tone, which may make it difficult to sit or walk for long periods). Most children with autism do, however, have physical limitations.

What Exactly IS a Physical Therapist?

Physical therapists (often called "PTs") are trained to work with people to build or rebuild strength, mobility and motor skills. Many physical therapists hold a Masters Degree or Doctorate in physical therapy, and have worked in the field as an intern before working on their own. They must also be board certified by a national and/or state governing board. According to the APTA (American Physical Therapy Association), "APTA's vision is that by the year 2020, the majority of practicing physical therapists will possess a DPT [Doctor of Physical Therapy] degree."

Most physical therapists work in clinical settings and/or home settings, and most work with patients who are recovering from injuries. Many also work with people recovering from stroke. A subset of physical therapists work with children and adults who are coping with lifelong disabilities such as cerebral palsy, spina bifida, or related neurological disabilities.

Dance and movement therapy, hippotherapy (therapeutic horseback riding), aquatic therapy (therapeutic swimming), recreational therapy and even play therapy may also be offered by people with a background in physical therapy. While none of these specialized services is likely to be supported by medical insurance, many may be right for your child.

What Does a Physical Therapist Do for People with Autism?

Physical therapists may work with very young children on basic motor skills such as sitting, rolling, standing and playing. They may also work with parents to teach them some techniques for helping their child build muscle strength, coordination and skills.

As children grow older, physical therapists are more likely to come to a child's preschool or school. There, they may work on more sophisticated skills such as skipping, kicking, throwing and catching. These skills are not only important for physical development, but also for social engagement in sports, recess and general play.

In school settings, physical therapists may pull children out to work with them one-on-one, or "push in" to typical school settings such as gym class to support children in real-life situations. It's not unusual for a physical therapist to create groups including typical and autistic children to work on the social aspects of physical skills. Physical therapists may also work with special education teachers and aides, gym teachers and parents to provide tools for building social/physical skills.

How Can I Find a Qualified Physical Therapist?

Most of the time, physical therapy is included in early intervention programs offered by school districts and other local providers. Physical therapists are likely to be subcontracted on an hourly basis. It's also relatively easy to find a physical therapist through local hospitals and rehabilitation centers, though those individuals are less likely to have specific training and experience with autism.

If you are seeking a private physical therapist, it's a good idea to start with your own pediatrician. Ask for a prescription, since this will allow your therapist to bill his or her hours to medical insurance.

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