Physical Therapy for Autism: 6 Benefits for Children With Autism

Reviewed by:

March 7, 2022

Physical therapy helps children with autism master basic motor skills used in daily life such as standing, running, or sitting by improving strength, balance, and posture.

Physical differences in children with autism

  • Early motor skills

Around 14 months, a lot of children with autism show slower development, including physical development. A research group found that children with autism were slower to reach mature motor patterns.

  • Postural control

Children with autism may also struggle with physical balance. Lower postural control and stability can make basic activities like walking or standing more difficult. A study found that postural control did not seem to improve in some children until they were around 12 years old.

  • Dyspraxia

This is a medical term for general clumsiness, usually associated with developmental disorders like autism. Several studies have reported that motor functions and quality of movement were generally lower in children on the autism spectrum. 

  • Gestures and motor imitation

Children with autism also have difficulties with communication, including physical gestures to express themselves and understanding body language.

How does physical therapy help?

Physical therapy is one of the many treatments that children with autism need access to, depending on the severity. Their expertise allows them to assess a child’s delayed motor and functional performance.

Physical therapy helps in:

  • Engaging and improving daily routine at home
  • Acquiring new movement skills 
  • Developing better coordination 
  • Improving play skills 
  • Developing motor imitation skills 
  • Increasing fitness and stamina

A physical therapist can help your child participate in school as well as at home. He/she should curate personalized plans to meet the child’s and their family’s requirements.

Physical therapy helps children improve their physical health, range of motion, and coordination through exercises. These exercises are usually performed at a care center or at home.

Physical therapy for children

Early years

For young children, the therapist works on increasing the child’s strength and coordination. For example, their treatment may include how to walk safely, how to use stairs, and more. Physical therapists guide children on having a routine, navigating physical boundaries, and interacting with their peers in play. 

School years

During this time, physical therapists work with parents as well as teachers to increase awareness about children with autism. They help the school staff understand how the child might function in the school. The skills may be developed using ball chairs, hula-hoops to mark personal space, whole-class movement breaks, or teaching strategies on how to play social games. 

Physical therapists also help children handle challenges such as crowded hallways, lunchrooms, etc. They may also work with school teams to promote skills like self-control, taking turns, etc. Therapists may even teach children to copy the movement of other children, develop coordination, spatial awareness, and even take part in physical education.

In adulthood

Physical therapists can also work with adults with autism to help them succeed in their daily lives. The therapist personalizes an exercise program to help the person with autism hold their job and help them function at home and have a healthy lifestyle.

Hydrotherapy for children with autism 

Physiotherapists have noticed that swimming lessons may lead to faster learning skills, improved motion range, and better overall mobility. The pressure and temperature of the water can also be soothing for children with autism since the warm water helps relax muscles and reduce spasticity.

Common exercises that physical therapists recommend

There are some different ways in which a therapist can help people with autism improve their motor skills. 

  • Exercising 

Exercise such as walking, jogging, swimming, weight training, etc., helps improve motor and social skills as it involves interacting with others. An individual with autism might prefer to do only one exercise, but a therapist can help guide them towards other exercises.

  • Exergaming 

Exergaming, a combined word for exercising and gaming, helps improve executive functions, working memory, motor strength, and more.

  • Yoga 

Yoga can help individuals with autism develop better gross motor performance. Yoga might be more beneficial for older children with autism rather than younger ones due to the complexity of the movements.

Signs and symptoms 

The two main signs that indicate a person may have autism are:

  1. Challenges in social communication
  2. Restrictive patterns of behavior 

Symptoms related to social communications are:

  • Avoiding eye contact
  • Playing alone and not engaging in creative activities 
  • Little to no interest in peers
  • Lack of engagement in social gatherings 
  • Resisting physical contact 
  • Trouble in understanding others feelings, body language
  • Less understanding about personal space
  • Delayed language and speech 
  • Lack of pointing and responding 
  • Repeated speech on a particular topic 

Symptoms related to restricted behavioral patterns:

  • Self-stimulation like flapping hands 
  • Being upset by minor changes 
  • Short span of attention 
  • Aggression or self-injury 
  • Lack of safety 
  • Odd reactions to smell, sound etc.

Does insurance cover physical therapy?

Recently, insurance companies have started providing coverage for physical therapy based on a greater medical understanding that preventative interventions are important for long-term health.

Conclusion

Treating physical issues such as poor posture or weak muscles with exercise can help children with autism master basic motor skills to be able to live an independent lifestyle.

Songbird therapy is a technology-enabled provider that is covered by 100+ insurance plans and is setting a higher standard for children’s autism care. With a deeply passionate team and innovative technology, we’re building a world where every child can access world-class care at home, uniquely tailored to them. Contact us today to begin life-changing autism care in weeks, not months.

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