In honor of both OT Month and Autism Awareness Month, I wanted to share an excerpt of an AOTA press release that went to Cincinnati media outlets today. This story is a testament to the important role occupational therapy has with autism spectrum disorder management.

Cincinnati, Ohio — When their son Adam Somsakhein was just 9 months old, pediatrician parents Denise Somsak and Patrick Hein began to notice “significant delays” in his development.

“He wasn’t able to sit up on his own and he was not speaking,” Somsak said.

A diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) confirmed their concerns.

Now an 8-year-old second-grader at Blue Ash Elementary School, Adam is learning to express his feelings and complete daily activities with the help of an occupational therapist.

“Adam has made great strides in tasks like eating and drinking. Speech is a big thing – we weren’t sure he’d ever talk,” Somsak said, adding that Adam has been in speech therapy and occupational therapy since he was 2. “The occupational therapy piece is so important to his life. We wanted to focus on developing skills to help with his daily living, like feeding himself and speaking. With his school therapy, we set goals, and they help us work on it.”

Asha Asher, MA, OTR/L, FAOTA, MEd, is one of the school-based therapists who works with Adam at Blue Ash. When she met Adam as a kindergartener, he was unable to drink from a cup and instead used a sippy cup or straw. Somsak said that Adam drooled until he was 6 because he could not control his facial muscles.

“We worked with him over several months to facilitate higher level oral-motor mouth control through graded challenges. We started with sensory stimulation, or, as Adam described the intervention, ‘Wake Up My Mouth!’ Next, we offered Adam a bit of his favorite cold chocolate milk in a small cup. We helped him to take in small amounts and move it to the back of his mouth and swallow, without tilting his head. As he improved, we gradually increased the quantity he could drink safely. Now he can drink milk from a glass and drink appropriately for his age with his peers,” Asher said.

Adam is also learning to become more comfortable holding a pencil. “He can write his name but he doesn’t like to,” Somsak said. In addition to therapeutic activities to foster mature motor control, Asher introduced Adam to a keyboard and used games to get him familiar with the placement of the letters. A special educator worked on creative keyboard activities to develop literacy concepts. Somsak adds that typing helps Adam develop his motor skills and coordination while expressing himself. When his grandfather died recently, Adam was encouraged to share his grief by writing a letter using a keyboard, which he did.

Asher said that yoga has complemented Adam’s occupational therapy because it has helped him improve his sensory organization, muscle coordination, strength, flexibility, and postural control. He’s become more comfortable lying flat on his belly or back, which he disliked before.

Somsak says that Adam’s therapy has motivated him to do things she never thought possible.

“As a mom with two other kids, I know I’m not as good at working with him as the school is,” Somsak said, adding that occupational therapists are her favorite people in the world because they seem to effortlessly understand her son’s quirks. “At first, his grip was terrible. I didn’t think he’d ever learn to zip his own coat or put on his shoes. Now he does both. I don’t know where we would be without these services.”

Asher has worked as a school-based occupational therapist for 35 years. Currently, she works with students with various levels of autism in two elementary schools and one high school in the Sycamore Community School System in Cincinnati, Ohio, including Blue Ash Elementary.

“Occupational therapy will not cure children with autism but will help them to function better in their daily occupations and reach their full potential,” said Asher. “We intervene to manage a child’s behaviors and facilitate the development of new skills. In schools, occupational therapy practitioners collaborate with other professionals to help all students thrive; for example, teachers can incorporate strategies recommended by a therapist to optimize a student’s performance in the classroom.”

Do you have an OT success story to share? Is the client open to media interviews? I’d love to hear from you. I’m always on the lookout for personal stories. Send yours to kriley@aota.org.