4 need-to-know ways physiotherapists support people with ASD

Discover the vital role physiotherapists play in helping adults and children with autism spectrum disorder live healthier, fuller lives and achieve their goals.

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is characterised by unique differences in social interaction, communication, and behaviour, which can include repetitive behaviours and restricted interests. For people with ASD, these differences can affect their physical and mental health and wellbeing, limit their participation in the activities of life, and, for children, hinder their social and communication development.

While many of us know that physiotherapists can improve fitness, stamina and strength and overall health through exercise and therapy interventions, these allied health professionals also provide tailored support to people with ASD to help them overcome specific challenges, achieve their goals and enjoy a better quality of life at each life stage.

Here are four ways physios do this:

1. Physios can help people with ASD overcome movement difficulties

Few of us think about how we move our bodies to perform everyday activities, however for people with ASD, moving their muscles in a controlled way and planning a task’s required sequence of movements can be a lifelong challenge.

Movement difficulties caused by poor motor skills are highly prevalent in children with ASD, and have been found to hinder their acquisition of adaptive behaviour skills, which includes social and communication development, through to their teen years.

“It’s vital that movement difficulties are addressed early in life as motor skills development goes ‘hand in hand’ with social and communications development, which are all essential for learning, participating in activities and staying healthy and safe,” explains Better Rehab’s Principal Clinician Physiotherapy, Todd Bartholomew.

According to Australia’s Physiotherapy Research Foundation, movement difficulties impact a child’s academic and physical performance, independence, relationships and ability to participate in everyday activities, including class lessons, playground games and team sports. “By not taking part in these typical childhood activities, children with ASD can miss out on all the benefits of social interaction, like making friends, expanding their communication skills, and other essential life skills such as negotiation, cooperation, sharing, turn-taking and problem solving,” explains Todd.

Physiotherapists can support children and adults with ASD with movement difficulties with exercise interventions and therapies that –

  • Increase muscle tone (people with ASD can have poor muscle tone, which is called hypotonia and sometimes described as having loose or floppy muscles).
  • Help address irregular walking traits and gait, which can include a short step length, toe walking and different heel-to-toe patterns that can all affect balance, cause pain and bring about physical changes that exacerbate movement difficulties.
  • Strengthen muscles to improve balance, postural control and postural ‘sway’, which is the movement the body makes to maintain an upright posture and balance during walking (for children postural control is also essential for sitting in class).
  • Improve coordination and motor planning, which is the ability to plan and carry out a task in the correct sequence.

2. Physios can identify movement challenges before formal ASD diagnosis

Physios draw on their vast knowledge and experience to identify movement delays before children are diagnosed or identified as at risk of ASD.

Early assessment for ASD can mean that young children can benefit from early intervention, from physiotherapists and other medical and allied health professionals such as occupational therapists, speech pathologists, and positive behaviour support practitioners, who often work in multidisciplinary teams to provide comprehensive and holistic support to enhance improved social, physical, emotional, and communication development and health and wellbeing.

Studies have found that physiotherapy interventions should be started as soon as motor skill development delays are identified, as fine and gross motor skill deficits in children between the ages of one and three can become significantly worse over a short period of time.

3. Physios can help people with ASD increase their physical activity and participation in sports

People with ASD are less physically active and tend to lead more sedentary lifestyles, which affects their mental and physical health and their reduced participation in activities in their community and beyond means they have less opportunities for social interactions.

Physiotherapists can create personalised programs with exercise interventions that improve fitness, strength, stamina and walking endurance, as well as physical and mental wellbeing and motor skills development. Physios can also create programs that take people with ASD out in their community to exercise and meet and talk to others.

People with ASD who participate in team sports and other physical activities can also benefit from better health and self-regulation, an improved ability to achieve goals relating to time and distance, and for children, reduced anxiety.

“Physios also know how to motivate people with ASD to be more active more often by choosing the activities and sports they enjoy or are their goal activity to make exercise engaging and relevant to them. For children, we’ll build exercises into play and other activities they find fun to keep them active and give them a positive experience with exercise, which can help to motivate them to move throughout their lives,” explains Todd.

4. Physiotherapy can help improve emotional regulation and sensory processing

Physiotherapists can help people with ASD regulate their emotions and sensitivity to various stimuli through specific exercise interventions that

  • reduce cortisol and increase dopamine and other endorphins that make us feel calmer which makes it easier for controlling our emotions;
  • relax the muscles to reduce stress;
  • provide a distraction from negative thoughts;
  • provide feel-good sense of achievement and other positive emotions that come with achieving goals;
  • and enable them to experience stimuli in a positive way, for example through play and other activities they enjoy.

“Physiotherapy and exercise are often forgotten about when supporting someone to improve their emotional regulation and support their sensory processing. Physios have the ability to tailor their programs to support a person’s sensory needs and provide an outlet and supportive strategies that can be implemented daily to improve their overall emotional regulation,” explains Todd.

Physiotherapists are a vital part of providing holistic support to people with ASD

Physiotherapists play a vital role in supporting people with ASD to overcome challenges, from movement difficulties and low physical activity to difficulties with emotional regulation and sensory processing, and in boosting children’s social and communication development. And as you’ve also discovered, physiotherapists are essential contributors contributions to multi-disciplinary allied health support teams.

“As physios, we’re trained to analyse movement and determine movement difficulties and in children, and to identify any challenges in their motor skills and motor planning, movement awareness and perception so they can perform the actions and activities in their daily lives, such as sitting, standing, walking, playing.

“Our physios know that many people with ASD like a set routine and have a reduced ability to cope with change. Their preference for performing the same movements each day limits their motor skill development as new movements are needed to gain new motor skills. Our physios accommodate this by gradually expanding their movement ‘repertoire’ to develop their motor skills and improve their posture, balance and coordination. They also create structured exercise programs which gives both adults and children with ASD a sense of comfort and security – and in this environment, they are often calmer and more willing to push their personal boundaries and try new movements,” explains Todd.

Physiotherapy in action at Better Rehab: Addressing an irregular gait 

“For a child with ASD who toe walks, a physiotherapist will perform a thorough assessment to determine the reasoning behind the child’s toe walking. They will also determine any sensory needs to be addressed, as well as support any physical restrictions that are forcing the child to toe walk.  

“Our physio team has the unique ability to look beyond just the physical limitations and address the child holistically and provide the best possible outcome for them and their family,” says Todd.  

If you would like more information on how our physiotherapists support people of all ages with ASD, simply contact our team by calling 1300 073 422, or via an email at admin@betterrehab.com.au. You can also make a referral on our website at https://betterrehab.com.au/submit-referral/ 

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