Why emerging? The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that autism affects 1 in 110 children in the United States.1 The rapid rise of cases of autism in the U.S. has led many states to pass legislation mandating that insurance companies pay for autism services, such as occupational therapy. This alone will facilitate more demand for occupational therapy services, but the demand will continue to grow as more research emerges that demonstrates the effectiveness of occupational therapy, such as the study showing that early intervention improves language, behavior, and IQ.2 The profession also plays a role in recognizing and identifying early signs of autism.
Get Involved! The growing number of autism cases definitely increases the need for occupational therapy, says Rondalyn Whitney, PhD, MOT, OT/L, and if an occupational therapy practitioner has an interest in pediatrics, then—by default—he or she will be working with children with autism. In the early 2000s Whitney wrote a book about autism, and news of her expertise traveled fast—“my private practice at the time exploded,” she says.
Whitney wants practitioners to understand that they cannot just treat the diagnosis of autism. “Make sure we’re treating the occupational engagement and not just a list of symptoms or a checklist,” she says. Whitney believes that working with children with autism is similar to working in an advanced practice area, and that practitioners should attend training courses and be able to articulate the unique contribution of occupational therapy. “We can’t just wing it,” she says. “We have to be very science-driven and know what we do, how we do it, and how we measure it.”
“It’s essential that we say ‘I’m an occupational therapist,’” she says. “Some people will say that they are sensory therapists, but we have to elevate ourselves and understand that we’re the only ones who have this expertise.”
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2009). Prevalence of autism spectrum disorders—Autism and developmental disabilities monitoring network, United States, 2006. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, 58, SS-10.
- National Institute of Mental Health. (2009, December 8). Autism intervention for toddlers improves developmental outcomes. Retrieved April 28, 2011, from http://www.nimh.nih.gov/science-news/2009/autism-intervention-for-toddlers-improves-developmental-outcomes.shtml