How Physical Therapy Helps Autistic Children
A physical therapist may be on the team treating an autistic child. Find out how physical therapy can help autistic children develop age-appropriate physical skills, such as throwing a ball.
By Madeline R. Vann, MPH
Medically Reviewed by Cynthia Haines, MD
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Physical therapy may be an option for children with autism who need help developing age-appropriate motor skills, have low muscle tone, or have problems with physical systems such as breathing control. Older autistic children can also benefit from carefully constructed exercise programs, which may be led by a physical therapist.
As with other autism therapies, the goals of physical therapy will be determined on an individual basis with the input of parents, physicians, and other members of the autism treatment team. “We also practice something known as family-centered care,” says physical therapist Trish West-Low, MAPT, of Children’s Specialized Hospital in Toms River, N.J. “So the concerns and goals of the family and child are incorporated into the child's treatment plan and expected outcomes.”
Autism Symptoms Addressed by Physical Therapy
“We can help a child with autism learn a variety of age-appropriate motor skills, from throwing, catching, and kicking a ball to jumping, hopping, and riding a bike,” explains West-Low. But there are other less playful physical therapies required by autistic children, such as:
- Treating impairments in the systems that impact motor function, such as problems with respiratory control and coordination
- Improving posture
- Addressing misalignments in the musculoskeletal system, such as chest wall deformities, and foot and ankle misalignments
- Developing fitness programs for older children with autism; for example, West-Low runs a yoga program for autistic children
When to Involve a Physical Therapist
If you suspect that your baby has problems developing appropriate motor skills or has low muscle tone, you can involve a physical therapist before his first birthday. Federal law provides therapy to children with disabilities or developmental disorders through the Early Intervention Program up to age 3, and then through the public school system through age 21.
The earlier you can begin therapy for autism, the better, say experts.
“Physical therapists can be involved even before a diagnosis is given if a child has subtle motor impairments or impairments in the other systems, which impact movement. The youngest child with autism I have worked with was 18 months old when we started physical therapy. When I took his developmental and health history, it became apparent that he could have been referred at 9 or 10 months,” says West-Low.
Physical therapists such as West-Low can work with autistic children in a variety of settings, including:
- Day care
- Community settings
- Rehabilitation programs
- Fitness centers
- Public exercise programs
Basically, says West-Low, physical therapists will work with children in “any other setting the parents would like the child to be able to function in” as well as wherever the child is receiving health care.
Physical therapists also become involved with rehabilitation after injuries. “Occasionally the diagnosis of autism is secondary,” West-Low says. “For instance, a child might have had a leg fracture and be in a rehab hospital for physical therapy, but we have to take the diagnosis of autism into account when designing their plan of care and structuring their therapy sessions.”
A lot of physical therapy can seem like structured play — and it is. Teaching children with autism to be comfortable and competent in their bodies is an important and often fun part of autism treatment.
Video: Physical Therapy and Occupational Therapy
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