ASD Support Basics: Occupational Therapy

Laurena Chen expertly guides parents through occupational therapy for autism.


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About Laurena Chen

Laurena Chen, with a master's in Occupational Therapy from USC and certification in Ayres Sensory Integration®, brings over ten years of experience to school-based therapy. Her global expertise includes collaborations with educators in Saudi Arabia, Hong Kong, and private practice. Currently, she focuses on training teachers and offering targeted educational support to parents.

What does occupational therapy involve, and how does it specifically benefit children with autism spectrum disorder?

I understand that the term "occupation" can be confusing for many people. It refers to the activities individuals spend most of their time doing, such as school and play for children. Occupational therapy is a holistic profession that assists individuals of all ages and in various settings to help them do what they want and need to do. 

Children with ASD face challenges in cognitive, motor, and sensory processing areas. One effective intervention for them is sensory integration, developed by Dr. Jean Ayres, an occupational therapist and educational psychologist. With 50 years of neuroscience-based theory and research, Ayres Sensory Integration targets a child's ability to effectively process sensory input from their body and environment, promoting organized, appropriate, and adaptive responses.

How does occupational therapy help address the daily challenges faced by children with ASD?

Children with ASD often encounter numerous challenges, especially in their daily routines and activities.

For example, they may struggle with tasks like getting dressed due to hypersensitivity to clothing textures. Sensitivities can also arise during bath time, such as washing their hair or brushing their teeth. Other activities like nail cutting, haircuts, and medical appointments can be overwhelming. 

Additionally, following routines or adapting to changes may be difficult, while emotional regulation can pose challenges for both children and parents throughout the day. These struggles often extend to the school setting.

Occupational therapy takes a holistic approach, considering the entire individual and their skills within their context. 

In the school setting, occupational therapists address fine motor difficulties, such as handwriting, using school manipulatives, and cutting with scissors. They also provide support for sensory challenges related to school supplies like glue and sand. Occupational therapists are experts in improving school-related skills, ensuring children can effectively access the curriculum.

Gross motor skills, including coordination, strength, and core stability, are also addressed by occupational therapists. These skills directly impact the child's stamina, ability to navigate the playground, and participate in physical education. 

Moreover, occupational therapy helps children regulate themselves to successfully follow their school routine. Sensory processing issues may affect a child's ability to attend and engage in school activities, requiring specialized intervention from occupational therapists.

What are the key objectives occupational therapists pursue when assisting children with ASD?

The goals of occupational therapists can vary depending on the setting. As my expertise lies within the school environment, I will focus on that aspect. 

The goals of occupational therapists vary by setting. Specializing in schools, I aim to help children with ASD fully access and engage with the curriculum while enhancing their  performance.  I also provide teacher training, classroom consultations, and family advocacy.  In cases where parents may be at different stages of their journey, I also provide extensive parent education. 

It is important to note that supporting the teachers and families is a collaborative partnership between the home and school, and I offer assistance where needed to both parties.


What assessments do you typically conduct during the initial sessions?

The assessments conducted during initial sessions vary based on the child's unique needs and the reason for referral.  Referrals can come from medical professionals in private practice or from a school's support team and teachers.

As occupational therapists, we have a variety of assessments available to evaluate areas such as fine motor skills, gross motor skills, coordination, strength, sensory processing, handwriting, and more. 

It is recommended to consult with your therapist to determine the specific assessments needed and their plan of action for evaluation.

What is the recommended frequency for my child's occupational therapy sessions?

The frequency of occupational therapy sessions depends on factors such as the child's age, specific needs, and the complexity of their case. It can range from a few parent coaching sessions or around 10 individual sessions to a longer-term commitment of 1-2 years or more, where the therapist works closely with the family.

In some instances, for children with more severe needs, occupational therapy support may span multiple years, starting from kindergarten and continuing into higher grades.

Maintaining open and frequent communication between the therapist and client is crucial. This helps ensure a clear understanding of the treatment plan and goals. 

It's important to note that goals may differ between private practice and school settings, considering the unique contexts and objectives associated with each.

Do you have a success story that illustrates the positive impact of occupational therapy on an individual with ASD?

I feel incredibly fortunate to have witnessed the significant impact occupational therapy has made on all my clients. It's difficult to pick just one success story because I've had the opportunity to work with a wide range of individuals on the autism spectrum, varying in both severity and giftedness.

Throughout my career, I've had the privilege of supporting individuals at different points on their journeys, and I've seen the transformation that occurs when they begin to understand themselves better. It's truly remarkable when parents are able to recognize and appreciate their child's unique strengths. This understanding, combined with a supportive environment, brings out the best in each individual.

One aspect that stands out to me is the importance of strong home support and effective partnerships with schools. When parents and educators work together, the children experience the fastest growth and progress.

Occupational therapy, with its comprehensive framework, sensory expertise, and focus on lifelong skills, can have a lasting impact on individuals with ASD.

I find great joy in being able to support parents throughout their own journeys, as they play a crucial role in their child's development. I believe that occupational therapy can have a lasting impact and support individual with ASD due to the nature of our framework, our sensory knowledge and applications and the ability to support lifelong life skills.

What advice  would you offer to parents considering occupational therapy for their child with ASD?

When considering occupational therapy for your child with ASD, it's understandable to feel overwhelmed and unsure of where to begin. With a wealth of information available, it's important to make informed decisions to ensure your child receives the best services. Occupational therapy can provide valuable support due to its holistic approach and unique lens.

Here are some suggestions:

  • Have open and honest conversations with professionals to ensure you feel comfortable with the information they provide. Trust your instincts and seek clarity on their approach.
  • Prioritize building a strong rapport between the therapist and your child. A positive connection can  enhance the effectiveness of therapy. If the initial connection is not strong, don't hesitate to explore other options until you find the right fit.
  • Embrace the concept of neurodiversity. Remember that an ASD diagnosis does not define your child. A good occupational therapist will help you identify and appreciate your child's strengths, supporting their unique abilities.


Visit  Resources here to download our curated list of occupational therapy services.