Adults with Asperger Syndrome: Is Occupational Therapy Right for You?

Elaine Hill, OTR/L

Elaine Hill works at the Center for the Disabled in Albany, NY, in a day rehab program. She has over 13 years of experience in occupational therapy.

Young adults with Asperger’s Syndrome may face challenges with social interaction, impaired motor skills, sensory processing issues, repetitive patterns of behavior and intensely focused interests, all of which might interfere with their ability to complete activities of daily living (ADL) in a manner similar to their peers. Increased awareness and knowledge about Asperger’s Syndrome has opened many avenues to help individuals with Asperger’s Syndrome adjust to life’s demands. One such avenue is occupational therapy.

Occupational therapy (OT) is a discipline that utilizes occupation (purposeful activity) to obtain, regain and/or maintain one’s highest level of function in ADL, work, play and leisure activities. ADL are necessary for all to maintain a healthy lifestyle, and include dressing, bathing, grooming and eating, just to mention a few. Higher level ADL are called instrumental ADL (IADL) and include activities such as home and money management. Work skills are necessary to be a contributing member of society and to earn an income. Play for children and leisure activities for adults contribute to a healthy self-esteem and a fulfilling life. Each of these areas varies according to one’s age, interests and life situation.

At times, situations or impairments interfere with a person’s ability to independently complete or participate in the above-mentioned ADL. These impairments can be made up of physical, cognitive and emotional components, or a combination of all three. First, one must evaluate which of these components are impairing the person’s functioning; then appropriate remediation or compensation can begin.

For example: One man had difficulty writing legibly (an IADL skill). An OT evaluation determined that he had decreased hand strength and impaired fine motor control (physical components). The treatment plan was to strengthen his hands, to improve coordination (restore function) and to adapt the pen grip (compensation). An example of a cognitive deficit is difficulty with following directions due to decreased attention. The treatment plan might include changing the environment to decrease visual and auditory distractions, or providing compensation techniques such as timers, breaks, or guidelines/outlines for assignments.

A comprehensive OT evaluation includes an assessment of abilities, strengths and weaknesses in each performance area (ADL, work, leisure, play) or in a specific area. An occupational therapist is trained to determine which components (physical, cognitive, emotional) are affecting optimal participation in a performance area. Once the components have been identified, the type of treatment approach can be determined. The goal of treatment may be to increase performance levels, to restore functioning to a prior level (or close to it), or to maintain current skills/prevent regression. Restorative therapy can include strengthening of physical skills (coordination, strength, endurance) and improvement of cognitive skills (memory, following directions, attending to details) and/or mental/psychological skills (self-esteem, self-expression and confidence).

Individuals with Asperger’s Syndrome may contact an Occupational Therapist if they have difficulty in any of the above-mentioned areas. More specifically, if a person is having difficulty with social skills among friends or within the community, an occupational therapist can help identify the underlying reason of the difficulty. Once a likely cause or causes have been defined, treatment can begin. Consider the following case study.

A young woman with Asperger’s Syndrome dislikes shopping. She says it is too noisy and busy. After further discussion, she and her occupational therapist determined she had difficult with processing sensory information. The noises and sights at the mall were overwhelming to her. Together, the young woman and the occupational therapist designed a sensory program and compensation techniques that would allow her to successfully complete her shopping. The sensory program consisted of exercises that, when done on a regular basis, helped her improve her ability to process sensory input from her environment. The compensation techniques included shopping at a smaller mall or store at times that aren’t typically busy, and to practice a social script. The social script is a way to role-play and practice interaction before it actually occurs. This “rehearsal” helps to increase one’s confidence and skills.

This is just one of many examples of how occupational therapy can improve an individual’s ability to participate in activities of daily living and improve his/her level of independence. The myriad of ways are too numerous to mention for this article; however, there is a simple way to determine if you, or someone you know, might benefit from occupational therapy services. Ask yourself if you have difficulty with performing any activity of daily living. Has there been a change in your ability to perform any activity of daily living? Is there something that is more challenging for you to do than it is for other people to do? If you answered yes to one or more of these questions, occupational therapy services might help you become more independent, or regain your independence.

To find out more about occupational therapy, visit the website Under the Welcome tab on the left side of the screen, select “About Occupational Therapy.” There you will find more case studies, tips for living, fact sheets, consumer organizations, and how to find an occupational therapist near you.

Editor’s note: The AANE referral database includes the names of occupational therapists, some of whom work with adults. We also welcome additional names to add to the database.