October 6, 2020

New research conducted by a group of occupational therapists provides insight into the specific social activities that challenge children and pre-teens diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). By looking at the participation rates of more than 700 children between ages 5 and 13, researchers found that children with ASD experience a lack of participation in social activities such as swimming, visiting friends, and having friends over to play, which persists throughout childhood.

Researchers found that children’s autism symptoms impacted how frequently they spent time in social activities. The study also found that the severity of the overall symptoms of the child’s autism affects participation in household activities, errands, neighborhood and social activities, and faith-based activities.

“As children grow older, we expect them to spend more time and be social with their friends, however, that was not what we found among kids with ASD,”

says Lauren M. Little, PhD, OTR/L, assistant professor in the Department of Occupational Therapy Education at the University of Kansas Medical Center. (To listen to a podcast featuring an interview with Little, click here.)

Current research by the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention estimates that 1 in 88 children will be diagnosed with ASD by age 8. Social challenges among kids with ASD often cause isolation and as an increasing number of children diagnosed with ASD enter their teenage years and adulthood, occupational therapy practitioners are working to help them gain confidence in their social interactions.

“This research may help occupational therapy practitioners promote participation in social activities for children with ASD. By helping kids participate in social activities beginning at young ages, like being with friends and having friends over to play, they can promote skills that could help these kids into their teenage years, when they’re vulnerable for even more social isolation,” said Little.

Rondalyn Whitney, PhD, OTR/L, is an assistant professor and interim program director of the doctoral program at the University of the Sciences, and also works with children who are affected by ASD. “Children with ASD often find themselves on the periphery of social interactions because they have had less social experiences,” said Whitney, who has organized Detective Camp and Humor Camp to aid children with ASD in social interaction and understanding humor.

“Occupational therapy practitioners work to address these social concerns so that as these children become adults, they can participate more confidently and age-appropriately in their interactions, because social deficits become more pronounced with age.”

Here are some examples of how occupational therapy practitioners work with children to overcome the social challenges caused by ASD:

  • Helping children build the habits of developing and maintaining friendships so that as adults, they can successfully navigate social interactions at work, at home, and in leisure activities.
  • Creating the social context and providing opportunities for children with ASD to engage in meaningful occupations that can foster friendships.
  • Engaging children in community events that offer positive outcomes.
  • Working with parents to reduce their stress level.
  • Enhancing the family’s quality of life to optimize opportunities for participation in activities that foster positive social interaction.

The research was conducted by Little; John Sideris, PhD, a scientist at the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; Karla Ausderau, PhD, assistant professor in the Department of Kinesiology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison; and Grace T. Baranek, PhD, professor and associate chair for research in the Department of Allied Health Sciences in the Division of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. This study was part of a larger, federally funded study led by Baranek. Findings appear in the current edition of the American Journal of Occupational Therapy.


About the author 

Shân Ellis

Shân Ellis, is a qualified journalist with five years experience of writing features, blogging and working on a regional newspaper. Prior to working as a journalist, she was a ghost writer for top publishers and was closely involved in the editing and development of book series. Shân has a degree in the sciences, and 5 A levels. She lives in the UK and is the mother of an autistic child.

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