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As a parent, you want the best for your child — and that often includes one-on-one services to help them reach their full potential. If your child has autism or you suspect they may have it, you may also notice symptoms of anxiety. Children with autism may experience anxiety in unfamiliar environments or with unexpected changes in their routines. Untreated anxiety in children with autism may result in stemming, social withdrawal or aggression.

We know that finding effective, thorough therapy for autism and anxiety can be stressful. About one in 36 children have autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Despite this number, less than half of the children receive therapy or early intervention services for their diagnosis.

Occupational therapists will work with you and find a comprehensive approach to anxiety and autism management. Your child's therapist will help them live a happier, more comfortable life by meeting their communication, speech, behavioral and developmental needs.

What Is Occupational Therapy?

Occupational therapy (OT) refers to services that focus on supporting an individual's ability to perform daily tasks. OT therapists address various conditions that may make it difficult for children with autism to manage essential activities, including:

  • Physical
  • Mental
  • Emotional
  • Developmental
  • Behavioral
  • Sensory
  • Cognitive

Occupational therapy can also include sensory integration therapy or physical therapy. Sensory integration therapy can improve responses to overwhelming or restricting sensory input. Physical therapy helps patients with fine and gross motor skills, such as gripping objects with their fingers.

If your child struggles to meet their full potential at home or thrive in school, OT can help them function at more optimal levels. The primary goal of OT is to help your anxious child master social, learning and wellness skills. These fundamental skills help children participate in their everyday lives fully.

Occupational therapists aim to treat the whole child, addressing all areas of need. This way, your child becomes more independent and feels more confident to engage in activities. OT involves several methods and strategies that work for a specific individual. However, they usually consist of the following learning services:

  • Self-care
  • Play skills
  • Managing sensory issues
  • Preventing harmful behaviors
  • Interacting with the environment

Occupational therapists evaluate the child to understand their needs and goals and build a plan. For example, a child may need to practice independent tasks like dressing and grooming. Another may require sessions focused on speech and communication skills.

Children with autism can learn to strive in their usual environments as well as teach them to feel calmer and more focused. This approach can be particularly helpful for children with autism who experience overstimulation and anxiety.

What Anxiety Management Looks Like for Children With Autism

Every child with autism is different, but there are several things that could trigger their anxiety or make it worse. For instance, an unpredictable social situation may cause your child to show increased signs of anxiety. Anxiety can also be caused by:

  • New bodily sensations, such as drastic temperature changes or scratchy clothing labels.
  • Unfamiliar environments and experiences.
  • Their own thoughts and feelings.

Children with autism can sometimes become overwhelmed with anxiety if they do not have their special interests, such as a comforting toy or object.

Children with autism may not express their anxiety as other children do, which is why it may be difficult for parents and teachers to identify. Some common signs of anxiety in children with autism include:

  • Frequent outbursts or meltdowns.
  • Avoiding certain situations.
  • Difficulty sleeping.
  • Engaging in physical harm, such as scratching or head-banging.

Occupational therapy for children with autism and anxiety aims to reduce distressing symptoms. Then, patients learn how to manage these symptoms. For instance, if a child with autism gets anxious when meeting new people, an occupational therapist may develop an independent calming strategy they can immediately use. OT may also help your child:

  • Understand what gives them anxiety.
  • Address challenging or underlying issues.
  • Recognize when they're feeling anxious.
  • Create visual tools to distract them in situations that trigger anxiety.
  • Practice handling anxious situations.

Within these categories of therapy techniques, your child's occupational therapist may also try the following strategies:

  • Creating safe sensory spaces.
  • Developing a sensory diet plan.
  • Applying weighted blankets or compression garments.
  • Reducing sensory sensitivity to decrease anxiety levels in stressful situations.
  • Using assistive technology or devices to help with communication.
  • Meditation or breathing exercises for self-soothing.
  • Talking with you about your child's signs of distress.
  • Providing fidget toys.

Occupational therapists may also use interventions like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) to manage anxiety and autism symptoms. CBT focuses on managing emotional distress, problematic behaviors and negative thoughts using various coping skills. Depending on your child's needs, an occupational therapist may use a combination of these techniques to create a comprehensive plan.

How Occupational Therapy Can Help Your Child

It's understandable that managing anxiety and autism can be overwhelming for kids. Occupational therapists are here to help them thrive in their normal environments and reduce problematic behaviors. Here are the top benefits of occupational therapy:

  • Teaches them to focus on tasks: Some children with autism may be so overwhelmed or overstimulated they can't pay attention to the task at hand. Occupational therapists work with your child in school or at home to improve their ability to concentrate on one activity at a time.
  • Teaches them to express themselves: Many children often throw tantrums or have emotional outbursts because they cannot communicate their feelings. OT benefits children with autism by teaching healthy, reasonable ways of expression without anger or violence. Learning to address their feelings more appropriately can also help them feel more comfortable in social interactions.
  • Improves quality of life: If your child struggles with severe anxiety, it can be difficult for them to live a fulfilled life. An occupational therapist at home or at your child's school will guide them through life's difficult moments. Occupational therapy helps children reduce symptoms of anxiety and gives them effective tools to navigate their diagnosis.
  • Increases independence: Though young children are not fully independent, OT services can help your child feel confident in doing things on their own. This could include brushing their teeth, getting dressed, feeding themselves or learning how to distract themselves from feelings of anxiety.
  • Teaches flexible problem-solving: Children with autism often struggle to manage their behaviors when obstacles come up. OT services can teach your child how to approach new situations and problem-solve using cognitive-based strategies.
  • Helps parents understand triggers: OT services benefit the entire family. Understanding your child's triggers more thoroughly can help you be an active participant in their treatment. Your child's occupational therapist will help you implement therapy techniques at home that greatly reduce your child's stress.
  • Provides ongoing treatment: An occupational therapist will work with your child through all areas of need. From monitoring your child to fostering new skills to reviewing their progress, occupational therapists are there for the long term if you need them.

Contact Premier Pediatric Therapy for Comprehensive OT Services

Children with autism and anxiety often struggle to flourish at home or in school. OT services can improve your child's quality of life. As part of the Kids SPOT Family of Companies, Premier Pediatric Therapy will work with you to develop a customized plan that aligns with your child's unique needs. We offer occupational, physical, speech, and ABA therapy services to help children with autism reach their full potential. We want to see your child thrive and help them learn how to manage anxiety for a more fulfilled life.

Request An Appointment

If you think your child can benefit from occupational therapy and want to learn more, we're happy to discuss our services and how we can help. Request an appointment with us today or visit our blog for more information.