Using Physical Therapy Autism Treatment

People on the autism spectrum have delays, differences or disorders in many areas. In addition to developmental delays, most have low muscle tone and experience difficulty with gross motor coordination (running, kicking, throwing, etc.). These issues can interfere with basic day-to-day functioning, and they're almost certain to interfere with social and physical development.

Physical therapists are trained to help with these issues. Not only can physical therapists help your child to build muscle strength and coordination, but they can do so in the context of sports, recess, and/or gym. As a result, physical therapy can improve functioning and social skills at the same time.

A physical therapist working with a young boy
Jose Luis Pelaez Inc. / Getty Images

The Role of a Physical Therapist

Physical therapists (often called "PTs") are trained to work with people to build or rebuild strength, mobility and motor skills. Many physical therapists hold a Masters Degree or Doctorate in physical therapy and have worked in the field as an intern before working on their own.

They must also be board certified by a national and/or state governing board. According to the APTA (American Physical Therapy Association), "APTA's vision is that by the year 2020, the majority of practicing physical therapists will possess a DPT [Doctor of Physical Therapy] degree." Physical therapy is typically considered to be medically necessary and is usually paid for by medical insurance.

Dance and movement therapy, hippotherapy (therapeutic horseback riding), aquatic therapy (therapeutic swimming), recreational therapy, 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.

What a Physical Therapist Does for People With Autism

Children with autism often develop typically for a short period of time and then present symptoms as toddlers. Physical symptoms that may be treated by a PT range from difficulty with coordination to lack of muscular strength. Balance may be an issue: children on the spectrum may find it very hard to ride a bike or use skates.

Perhaps most significantly, autistic children are likely to have difficulty with "motor planning." In other words, they may have the skills to climb onto a swing and be able to hang on—but they may have a very difficult time coordinating their bodies to "pump" and get the swing moving.

Physical therapists may work with very young children on basic motor skills such as sitting, rolling, standing, and running. They may also work with parents to teach them some techniques for helping their child build muscle strength, coordination, and gross motor skills.

As children grow older, physical therapists are more likely to treat young clients at the child's preschool or school. There, they may work on more sophisticated skills such as skipping, kicking, throwing and catching. These skills are not only important for physical development, but also for social engagement in sports, recess and general play.

In school settings, physical therapists may pull children out to work with them one-on-one, or "push-in" to typical school settings such as gym class to support children in real-life situations. It's not unusual for a physical therapist to create groups including typical and autistic children to work on the social aspects of physical skills. Physical therapists may also work with special education teachers and aides, gym teachers, and parents to provide tools for building social/physical skills.

How to Find a Qualified Physical Therapist

Most of the time, physical therapy is included in early intervention programs offered by school districts and other local providers. Physical therapists are likely to be subcontracted on an hourly basis.

It's also relatively easy to find a physical therapist through local hospitals and rehabilitation centers, though those individuals are less likely to have specific training and experience with autism.

If you are seeking a private physical therapist, it's a good idea to start with your own pediatrician. Ask for a prescription, since this will probably allow your therapist to bill his or her hours to medical insurance.

4 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Signs and symptoms of autism spectrum disorders.

  2. Choose PT provided by APTA. Find a PT.

  3. Atun-einy O, Lotan M, Harel Y, Shavit E, Burstein S, Kempner G. Physical therapy for young children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders-clinical frameworks model in an israeli setting. Front Pediatr. 1:19. doi:10.3389/fped.2013.00019

  4. Holloway JM, Long TM, Biasini F. Relationships Between Gross Motor Skills and Social Function in Young Boys With Autism Spectrum Disorder. Pediatr Phys Ther. 30(3):184-190. doi:10.1097/PEP.0000000000000505

By Lisa Jo Rudy
Lisa Jo Rudy, MDiv, is a writer, advocate, author, and consultant specializing in the field of autism.