Sensory table for children.

The field of occupational therapy encompasses many medical issues and methods of treatment. As a parent of a child with autism, it’s helpful to understand why you have received a referral for occupational therapy, how it will benefit your child, and how it is incorporated into his ABA therapy. Let’s take a look at the ins and outs of OT.

What is Occupational Therapy?

Occupational therapy helps individuals learn, strengthen, and accomplish tasks, behaviors, and goals they need and want to thrive. It is the only life- long therapy and has been an effective method for helping people with autism, and various mental disabilities perform normal daily activities independently. It was in practice long before ABA therapy and even before autism spectrum disorder’s official identification. Occupational therapy is implemented to improve the quality of life and skills training for those with disabilities. OT may be used with various cognitive, sensory, or physical concerns, including loss of skills or memories due to accidents or illnesses. As the approach and methods have evolved over the years, occupational
therapy has become a relied upon method to help teach and strengthen the necessary skills and quality of life of those with autism. Its holistic approach focuses on adapting the environment or the task at hand to the individual and his needs. It can also help develop or improve:

  • Motor skills
  • A sense of accomplishment
  • Self-esteem
  • Self-confidence
  • Learning
  • Social interactions

Additional Areas Addressed

Occupational therapy benefits an array of medical concerns, including:

  • Mental health issues
  • Behavioral issues
  • Spinal cord injuries
  • Traumatic brain injury
  • Congenital disabilities
  • Learning problems
  • Juvenile rheumatoid arthritis
  • Orthopedic injuries
  • Chronic illnesses
  • Developmental delays
  • Post-surgical conditions

What Does an Occupational Therapist Do?

There is often a misconception of what the role of an occupational therapist entails. Since occupational therapy encompasses such a wide range of medical concerns, an occupational therapist is trained to address many tasks, behaviors, and skills. A therapist may work on fine motor skills to address grasping, holding, and releasing writing utensils, toys, or silverware. They help with various self-help skills, including:

  • Brushing teeth
  • Dressing
  • Bathing

They also help in areas of improving hand-eye coordination and learning to develop positive ways to express emotion and deal with anger. The occupational therapist also has the responsibility of evaluating the need for special equipment. The use of braces, a walker or wheelchair, or various communication devices may be necessary. Tasks such as using a keyboard or iPad may be challenging and require the therapist’s instruction.

They often address attention and social concerns, as well. Although some of these responsibilities seem to be similar to those of a physical therapist, physical therapy focuses on gross motor skills, pain, strength, and range, while occupational therapy addresses the fine motor skills, sensory processing, and perception areas.

You may also find that some occupational therapists are licensed ABA therapists. With the many similarities that overlap the two practices, this is not surprising. Professionals specializing in occupational therapy utilize many forms of treatment. They may choose to use play therapy to introduce a child to a variety of useful toys. Aside from play-based practices, they may incorporate real-life daily living situations, educational scenarios, and participation in social activities to help build necessary skills.

An occupational therapist may need to help a child who is struggling to write his name. The child may have various underlying concerns that need addressing before he can accomplish the name-writing task. Areas of struggle may include muscle weakness, visual memory, and eye-hand coordination. These are all obstacles an occupational therapist is trained to recognize and work on to correct the root issues.

Child brushing teeth

How Will My Child be Observed?

Children learn through play, and the best observations take place in a child’s natural environment. Much can be learned from watching a child’s play skills or observing him in his school setting. Your insight as his parent is also beneficial in painting a picture of your child’s daily routine and environment interactions. His therapist will then evaluate your child’s abilities and make comparisons to the typical development of children in his age range. His therapist will also assess and address any concerns in areas of social skills, psychological, and environmental factors that may influence his ability to function at his best. Occupational therapy evaluations are extremely helpful in understanding why and how a child struggles with specific tasks.

The Role of the Parents with Occupational Therapy

Just as with ABA therapy, occupational therapy goals and treatment plans rely on your input. Since you can provide the most insight into your child’s environments, behaviors, and progress, your data is vital to his team. Goals may also be adjusted based on the feedback you can provide your child’s therapist. If you have not yet begun ABA therapy, your child’s ABA therapy team will give you the tools and training you need.

Pairing OT with ABA Therapy

The evidence-based success of ABA therapy has proved to be tremendously beneficial in helping individuals with autism learn new skills and replace undesired ones. Today, you will often find various treatments paired with ABA therapy as a practical and complementary approach to improving all skills, behaviors, and quality of life.

Occupational therapists concentrate on environmental factors and tasks that are specifically related to the goals being addressed. An ABA therapist will evaluate the behavior, then find and address the root cause or causes of the unwanted action. They look at both the environment and the many factors that could be influencing this behavior.

Occupational therapists work well with ABA therapists and can assist each other in a variety of ways. Some occupational therapists prefer to use an
applied behavior analyst as a consultant during sessions and team meetings to coordinate changes or new services needed. In some instances, the most beneficial approach is to combine OT and ABA therapy for the benefit of the individual.

Occupational therapy provides benefits to ABA therapy that can directly impact the progress of the patient. Occupational therapists can effectively help children who have sensory difficulties. Sights, smells, tastes, sounds, touch, and movement can all be incredibly difficult for children with autism to process. Children with autism may not have the skills to understand and react appropriately to specific sensory stimulation. For children with autism to process sensory information, hypersensitivity (or hyposensitivity) to stimuli needs to be addressed first.

Occupational therapists use their observations and the data they collect to create a plan that best suits the replacement of specific behaviors. Children who exhibit undesirable behaviors or anti-social type behaviors may be experiencing trouble processing and understanding the sensory information in the current environment. Occupational therapy provides sensory activities that can be practiced and implemented in various settings, including therapy sessions. Even simple activities, such as jumping, dancing, or doodling, can help a child process sensory information more productively.

Benefits for Your Child

While both therapies have the same goal in mind for your child, they share many other values. During the assessment and diagnosis process, OT and ABA consider the multiple natural environments of your child. They are both based upon the individual skills, behaviors, and needs of your child and base his treatment plans and goals on his strengths and areas in need of improvement. Occupational therapy and ABA therapy believe strongly in emphasizing the functional aspects of your child’s behaviors and their outcomes rather than theory. Observations of your child are a vital component of both therapies.

The two complement each other when paired together. Your child’s therapists may work together, each contributing their unique view on the same issues while occupational therapists can break down a scenario and evaluate the physical obstacles that are challenging your child. His ABA therapist can provide insight on how to use positive reinforcement practices to motivate new behaviors and skills needed for that same situation. Together, they can provide invaluable insight to help your child succeed. A cross-disciplinary or multi-disciplinary center can be a beneficial choice for your child’s needs. Behaviors and skills may be learned or improved much quicker, and observations made in this type of environment can be incredibly beneficial for each therapist.

Occupational Therapy and School Readiness

One primary goal occupational therapy works towards during sessions is to prepare your child for school readiness. If your child is currently attending school, the goal becomes to help support him and his ability to participate and engage in various tasks and activities with his teachers and peers. Introducing, developing, and maintaining new skills helps your child work towards his goals. An evaluation will help determine the developmental milestones your child may or may not have met yet. This helps his occupational therapist create developmentally appropriate goals to work towards.

To help ensure the best learning environment for your child, sensory issues are often a priority goal for children with autism. Occupational therapy, with the help of ABA therapy practices, focuses on individual sensory-processing difficulties that may interfere with your child’s learning. Working to remove barriers will help your child develop the skills to focus on the school environment.

Sensory Integration

Many therapists choose to pursue additional training in sensory integration. Particularly helpful when working with children, sensory integration therapy assumes that a child is either “over stimulated” or “understimulated” by his environment. The goal of sensory integration therapy is helping to improve the brain’s ability to process various sensory information. This provides the child with the opportunity to be able to function more successfully throughout their day.

A Sensory Diet

An occupational therapist may prescribe your child a sensory diet lifestyle or treatment strategy designed to help manage sensory processing dysfunctions. It’s a daily activity plan designed specifically for children with sensory integration difficulties. The goal of these activities is to incorporate sensory activities throughout the day to help improve his focus and attention span. Providing these activities that are spread out throughout your child’s day will help keep arousal levels up. The sensory diet lifestyle works towards improving the nervous system feel more organized and in control. This helps your child’s attention span as well as performance level.

A therapist with sensory integration training will be able to assess your child’s sensory diet needs and create a daily plan that is tailored to him. While most people naturally and unknowingly learn to use all their senses to understand their environment better, autism makes this problematic. Each child processes in his unique way, so each sensory diet will be unique to his individual needs and environments.

Sensory Diet Activities

Activities can be made up of various sensory and physical activities. They are used to:

  • Help your child deal with sensory-motor needs
  • Decrease the impact a sensory dysfunction may cause
  • Reduce issues with attention, behavior, learning, and skill development
  • Act as a treatment strategy when behavior is an issue, or low attention span is interfering
  • Act as a preventative strategy tool in cases where your child will be exposed to known triggers such as environment

They may include white noise, visual cues for instructions, swinging, or playing with sand.

Does it Work?

Children with sensory processing disorders have difficulty processing and choosing the appropriate actions and responses based on the information from their senses. It’s a skill that can create tensions and challenges. Even the smallest tasks can trigger anxiety, behavioral problems such as tantrums or outbursts, or difficulty succeeding in the school environment.

Although every case is different, you may see the effects of your child’s sensory diet take place quickly. The activities can restructure your child’s nervous system. This happens over a period of time and helps him tolerate different environments, situations, and sensations that are disturbing or distracting to him. These activities help your child regulate and increase attention span and make him more alert. He will learn to become better equipped to handle stress, new situations, and transition more smoothly.

Our knowledgeable team here at Blossom Children’s Center focuses on providing your family with the information you need. We understand how overwhelming this entire process can be. That’s why we want to help educate and support you on this journey so that you may make the best, informed decisions for your family. Visit our blog for more resources or if you’re in the Detroit area, contact us today to learn more about our services.


  1. Jonathan Hansen September 1, 2020 at 12:12 pm - Reply

    It’s awesome that you point out that occupational therapy can help children with autism develop better social skills. I want my autistic son to learn how to socialize better, so I’m thinking about taking him to an occupational therapist. I’m going to search for a good occupational therapy provider in the area that I can use.

  2. Bob Newton December 21, 2020 at 11:16 am - Reply

    It’s interesting that you mention that occupational therapy can help autistic people with their motor skills. My autistic son needs help developing his motor skills, so I think that occupational therapy would be good for him. I’m going to search for a reputable business in the area that offers occupational therapy.

  3. Taylor Hicken January 10, 2021 at 11:34 pm - Reply

    You made a good point when you shared that occupational therapy can help one to learn and accomplish the goals that they want to thrive. My friend just mentioned the other day that she has always worried about her son who is unable to walk properly after he got into an accident a few months ago when he was on his way home from his school. I will suggest to her taking him to a reliable place where he can get occupational medicine to treat the problem.

  4. Charlotte Fleet March 28, 2022 at 4:50 pm - Reply

    It is so good to know that occupational therapy can benefit a child’s functional behavior. I would imagine that it would be crucial to find the best occupational therapist for your child’s needs. That way, they can advance at a pace that is best for them and they will be comfortable.

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