Occupational therapy

a toddler touching colorful blocks during occupational therapy

What is occupational therapy?

Occupational therapy (OT) helps people work on cognitive, physical, social, and motor skills. The goal is to improve everyday skills which allow people to become more independent and participate in a wide range of activities. 

What does occupational therapy do?

Occupational therapy for autism often focuses on play skills, learning strategies, and self-care. OT strategies can also help to manage sensory issues. The occupational therapist will begin by evaluating the person's current level of ability.

The evaluation looks at several areas, including how the person:

  • Learns
  • Plays
  • Cares for themselves
  • Interacts with their environment

The evaluation will also identify any obstacles that prevent the person from participating in any typical day-to-day activities. Based on this evaluation, the therapist creates goals and strategies that will allow the person to work on key skills.

Some examples of common goals include:
  • Independent dressing
  • Eating
  • Grooming
  • Using the bathroom
  • Fine motor skills like writing, coloring, and cutting with scissors

Occupational therapy usually involves half-hour to one-hour sessions. The number of sessions per week is based on individual needs.

The person with autism may also practice these strategies and skills outside of therapy sessions at home and in other settings including school.

Some OTs are specifically trained to address feeding and swallowing challenges in people with autism. They can evaluate the particular issue a person is dealing with and provide treatment plans for improving feeding-related challenges.

Learn more about autism and feeding issues

Who provides occupational therapy?

A licensed Occupational Therapist (OT) provides OT services. They have a master’s degree and have passed a national certification exam, The National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy, or NBCOT.

In addition, occupational therapists must obtain a license in their state. You can learn more on the American Occupational Therapy Association website.

In some cases, therapy services are provided by an Occupational Therapy Assistant (OTA). This is a person with an associate’s or bachelor’s degree, who is trained and supervised by a certified OT. The assistant works directly with the person with autism to practice skills and work towards goals that are written by the OT in the clinical treatment plan.

Is occupational therapy covered by insurance?

Yes, occupational therapy is often covered by health insurance. In some cases, a doctor must state that the therapy is medically necessary for health insurance to provide coverage. Please see our insurance resources for more information about insurance and coverage for autism services.

Students can also receive occupational therapy as part of their Individualized Education Program (IEP) at school. OT is often written into IEPs as a related service and includes goals that are related to learning. Occupational therapy services are provided at no cost to families when they are included in the IEP.

Young children can receive occupational therapy through their Early Intervention program. Early intervention is offered in each state to children up to age 3 who are not growing and developing as quickly as expected. These services are free or low-cost based on your family income. 

How do I find/select a qualified provider?

Questions to ask before beginning OT:

  1. Who will be working directly with my child?
  2. How many years have you been working as a OT?
  3. Where will services be provided?
  4. How often will therapy sessions be?
  5. What are the goals of this program?
  6. What real-life skills will therapy help with?
  7. How do you help with sensory issues?
  8. How do you measure progress?