Reacreation Therapy for Autism


Q: My son was diagnosed with autism when he was 5 years old. His pediatrician mentioned that recreation therapy would probably be very beneficial for him. Could you please explain what this is? Will insurance plans pay for this type of therapy? How do you find a recreation therapist?

Imagine a world where you did not see, hear, smell, feel and taste the way everyone else does. Imagine lights and sounds that bombard your senses. This can be frightening, and this is often the world that children with autism face every day. Autism is a lifelong neurological and biological developmental disability that begins at birth or during the first three stages of life. Current prevalence rates indicate an incidence of about 2 in 1,000. Although the cause is not known, it appears to be associated with some hereditary factors. The risk of autism is three times more likely in males and is not isolated to any one race.

Therapeutic recreation uses treatment, education and recreation services to help people with illnesses, disabilities and other conditions to develop ways that enhance their health, functional abilities, independence and quality of life. The lifestyle of children with autism includes many challenges due to their organizational and sequencing problems. These children do not know where to start, what comes next or when a task is finished. This creates significant difficulties with organizing their day or their activity involvements. Recreation-therapy interventions can help address many of these affected life areas. A recreational therapist's primary role is enhancing the quality of life and productivity of a child with autism. Recreational therapists offer individuals with disabilities the opportunity to resume normal life activities and to establish/re-establish skills for successful social integration.

Among the range of interventions that a recreational therapist might choose, one unique and very successful alternative for individuals with autism is aquatic therapy. Water activities provide autistic children with sensory input. Children with autism have significant sensory difficulties and are very distractible. The warm water provides an environment that reduces body weight by 90 percent, decreasing stress or impact on the body. Warm water also helps to relax muscles. Recreational therapists know that children with autism respond better to visual cues and specific tangible rewards. Using picture cards to explain what you are requesting the child to do will often work better than verbal directions. Using rewards is very effective when dealing with children, and it also aids in understanding the concepts of time and task completion that children with autism may have difficulty with.

The average insurance company does not pay for individual recreational therapy, however, there are programs you can sign your child up for through the Autism Society of North Carolina. This agency can provide you with financial support and direct you to a recreational therapist in your area. You may find recreation therapists working in hospitals, community centers like the YMCA or in your school system.

Michelle Townsend, a certified therapeutic recreational specialist, works for Moses Cone Behavioral Health Center in Greensboro. Please submit your questions to "Is my Kid OK?" by e-mailing

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