Occupational therapy, autism and tactics of self-regulation

Brian Field

Occupational Therapy, or “OT,” is frequently incorporated into autism therapy regimens to help, among other things, stimulate a balance between the body and mind that can help focus the child. For example, a child may be easily distracted while sitting in a regular classroom chair. When the chair is replaced by a large exercise ball and the child now needs to maintain his balance while sitting, the child’s mind becomes more attuned – focused in part on balancing, more aware of the environment around him, and able to concentrate and focus on other learning.

Exposure to OT and developing awareness to self-regulate one’s body and the body-mind connection can help children – and adults – focus when distracted, and energize oneself when feeling depleted. For younger children, talking about one’s body as an “engine” that’s performing slowly, or “hot/too much energy” is a good visual to use. The following are some OT tactics that can help get your child (or you) out of a “hot zone” and into a calmer physical-mental state.

“On high” at home: too much energy and running all over the house? Some ways to ground yourself are animal walking, learning a few simple yoga postures to do, stopping and taking a few deep breaths.

“On high” while at school: Animal walking around the class, or jumping up and striking yoga poses would obviously be disruptive to the other students. What can be done here are things like giving the child a small “squishy toy” also called a “fidget toy” that allows the child to manually compress/squeeze an object. Having a textured cushion is also another common tactic, and teaching the student to slowly raise and lower his body from the sides of the chair is yet another mechanism of resistance exercise that can help settle the mind. Outside, the child can swing or with a therapist engage in “heavy lifting” exercises or resistance exercises such as pushing a heavy ball or other similar object.

When your “engine” is at low energy: Chewing on crunchy snacks help stimulate the oral-motor connection and can help reinvigorate the child (try healthier fare such as carrot sticks or pretzels). Jumping in place on a mini-trampoline also works wonders and helps the joint compression so too does taking a walk.

As adults we too can benefit from these kinds of tactics to help bolster our concentration and help us at work. The key here is developing (and teaching) self-regulation so that when we feel over-excited or in a low-energy lull, we have a set of physical tactics we can use to perk up mentally and focus.

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