How School Clinicians Collaborate to Help Students with Autism

The number of children with autism has increased 120 percent since 2002. Experts cite a combination of factors, including a broader definition of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and better diagnostic methods. It’s important to consider how school-based practitioners can improve the services they provide to students with ASD. How can these practitioners collaborate to ensure their clients receive the best care?

Collaboration among school professionals is key to providing children with autism the best possible educational and developmental opportunities. Speech-language pathologists (SLPs) and occupational therapists (OTs) have the opportunity to work together and use specialized resources to ensure a student’s needs are met with comprehensive, effective care.

How Do Occupational Therapists Work with Children Who Have Autism?

Children’s work with OTs varies depending on their cognitive, sensory, and social abilities. Typically, OTs work to integrate processing, improve social skills, and provide parents with pragmatic steps to work toward individualized goals, which may include improving fine motor skills and daily living skills. Some common ways to achieve these goals include developmental activities, purposeful play, and practicing daily activities, such as teeth-brushing or note-taking. An occupational therapist may use a variety of tools to simulate real life activities. They also work with children to foster strength-based participation and to reduce distractions, using visual schedules, self-regulation breaks and alternative seating such as ball chairs. 

How Do Speech-Language Pathologists Work with Children Who Have Autism?

Students’ interactions with SLPs, like OTs, also depend on their cognitive, sensory, and social abilities. An SLP might suggest an augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) device, and help with implementation and training. AAC is a broad term that encompasses communication without speech, such as body language or written notes. SLPs may use a range of tools, including speech-generating devices, to help children communicate. Current technology also allows for phone, tablet and computer applications. SLPs support children with autism in other capacities, such as helping them learn new words or tell stories.

How Can OTs and SLPs Work Together with Children Who Have Autism?

Occupational therapists and speech-language pathologists collaborate in a number of ways. These school-based practitioners may serve on a multidisciplinary diagnosis team or communicate with one another to improve care for students with autism. The school setting enables SLPs and OTs to interact with each other more frequently, as well as with teachers, parents, and other school staff who may be involved in the child’s individualized education plan (IEP) or treatment plan.

As a result of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEA) of 1975, all children should receive a free education that meets their needs and prepares them to further their learning, employment, and independence. This is fostered through IEPs as a way for professionals, parents, and students to work together to achieve individualized goals and to support one another.

Speech-language pathologists and occupational therapists have specific client goals. However, these may often be aligned to provide comprehensive and collaborative care. If an SLP is working on phonological awareness with a child and an OT would like to improve the child’s fine motor skills, the OT may integrate phonological awareness into occupational therapy sessions. Similarly, SLPs may incorporate fine motor skills into their sessions while working to improve phonological awareness. In this example, the child may work on these skills by writing specific words or phrases.

With the recent increase in diagnosis of autism, effective clinician collaboration will play a larger role in improving education for these children. The opportunity for OTs and SLPs to work together to address the needs of children with ASD will allow them to provide compassionate and comprehensive care, preparing children for a more comfortable learning experience and, ultimately, a brighter future.

Citation for this content: OT@NYU, the online doctorate in occupational therapy from NYU Steinhardt.