physical therapy for autism

Does Physical Therapy for Autism Work?

April 3, 2019

People with autism have developmental delays or disorders in many areas. Additionally, most of their low muscle tone experience difficulty with gross motor coordination such as running, kicking, and throwing. This condition can interfere with basic day-to-day activities as well as with social and physical development. To address psychomotor issues in relation to autism, physical therapy may be necessary.

Physical Therapists and People with Autism

Physical therapists (often referred to as PT) are trained to help with the issues of autism. They were trained to work with people to build or rebuild strength, mobility, and motor skills. They can work with children with autism in a variety of settings such as the home, daycare, clinics, hospitals, fitness centers, and so on. But physical therapists can also work in any other setting that the parents would like their child to be.

Many physical therapists hold a master or doctoral degree in physical therapy and have worked in the field before working on their own. In fact, they must be board certified by a national and/or state governing board. APTA, or the American Physical Therapy Association, has a vision for the practicing physical therapist. It is that majority of them will possess a DPT (Doctor of Physical Therapy) degree by the year 2020.

Even before a diagnosis is given if a child has subtle motor impairments or impairments in the other systems which impact movements, physical therapists can be involved. So if you suspect, that your child has problems with appropriate motor skills development, or has low muscle tone, you can already involve a physical therapist even before his first birthday.

Physical Therapy for Autism

Physical therapy is typically considered to be medically necessary as it can improve mobility and social skills at the same time.

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.

The physical symptoms that may be treated by physical therapists range from difficulty with coordination to lack of muscular strength such as balance issue (e.g. riding a bike and using skates). Moreover, according to some physical therapists, there are other less playful physical therapies required by children with autism such as:

  • Impairments in the systems that impact motor function, such as problems with respiratory control and coordination
  • Posture
  • Misalignments in the musculoskeletal system, such as chest wall deformities, and foot and ankle misalignments

Early Intervention

The focus in Early Intervention is to coach and educate families and/or caregivers on how to use physical therapy activities to encourage increased participation in the child’s routine at home and in the community. This may include assisting a child to learn to move as independently as possible throughout his home and at the playground, for example. Moreover, school-based physical therapy supports the child’s ability to get around the building and classroom in order to access the educational program and promote learning.

An article stated that some children with autism have difficulty with “motor planning”. Let’s say for example that they may have the skills to climb onto a swing and be able to hang on but they have a very difficult time coordinating their bodies to pump and get the swing moving.

Physical therapists may also work with basic motor skills among young children such as sitting, rolling, standing, and running. Working with parents is also a good idea. Parents can learn some techniques from physical therapists on how can they help their children build muscle strength, coordination, and gross motor skills.

Older Children

As children grow older, PTs can treat them at a child’s preschool or school where more sophisticated skills such as skipping, kicking, throwing, and catching can be taught. By this, the children are more likely to develop not just physical skills but also social engagements.

School settings have a lot of advantages. A physical therapist may pull children out to work with them one-on-one, or just simply put in a typical school physical education class to support children in real-life situations. It is not unusual for a physical therapist to create groups including typical children and autistic children to work on the social aspect of physical skills.

On the other hand, in a clinic setting, the treatment is determined by the referring physician, parent/ caretaker, and therapist.

Physical teachers may also work with special education teachers and aides, gym teachers, and parents to provide appropriate tools for building social and/or physical skills.

Hippotherapy (therapeutic horseback riding), recreational therapy, dance and movement therapy, aquatic therapy (therapeutic swimming), and even play therapy may also be offered by people with a background in physical therapy. While none of these specialized services is likely to be supported by medical insurance, many may be right for your child.


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. Even the older autistic children can also benefit from carefully constructed exercise programs, which may be led by a physical therapist.

Federal law provides therapy to children with developmental disorders or disabilities through the Early Intervention Program up to age 3, and then through the public school system through age 21. The earlier the children with autism can begin the therapy, the better it is according to experts.

Moreover, a licensed physical therapist or certified physical therapy assistant (CPTA) may implement treatment for a child who meets eligibility criteria for physical therapy services within an Early Intervention or school program, although physical therapy is also available for outpatient service.

Physical therapy approach will also depend on the PT. Since children learn through play, treatment may include a child-friendly approach, specially chosen toys, and activities to encourage and motivate the students/patients to participate in the therapy. Typically balls, swings, and slides are present in a pediatric therapy gym. Children are motivated to have fun while they work hard to finish the tasks their therapists set for them.