FAQ: How Occupational Therapy Can Help Adults with Autism

  • Q: How can occupational therapy help adults with autism?
  • Q: How is occupational therapy different for adults than children?
  • Q: Can occupational therapy help with employment?
  • Q: What areas do occupational therapists work with for adults who have autism?
  • Q: Is occupational therapy for adults successful?
  • Q: Do adults with autism benefit from a combined approach to treatment and therapy?


Occupational therapy for adults with autism typically focuses on helping individuals develop the skills they need to live independently and participate in daily activities in adulthood. These may include, but are not limited to tasks such as cooking, cleaning, grooming, and managing money. Occupational therapists may also work on developing social skills (including dating), communication skills, and improving fine motor coordination. The specific goals and interventions will vary depending on the individual’s needs and abilities.((Case-Smith, J., & Arbesman, M. (2008). Evidence-based review of interventions for autism used in or of relevance to occupational therapy. The American Journal of Occupational Therapy, 62(4), 416-429.))

Occupational therapy for adults with autism may also focus on addressing any sensory processing issues or sensory sensitivities that may be impacting the individual’s ability to engage in daily activities. Rather than changing the individual, OTs can work with clients to empower them to maximize engagement in everyday activities. For example, an occupational therapist may work with an individual to help them better tolerate certain textures or smells, or to help them better regulate their emotions. Or it could mean a simple change to one’s environment or the activities that they engage in.

As autism currently has no “cure” and is a lifelong diagnosis, occupational therapists may also work with adults with autism to help them build resilience and coping strategies for dealing with the challenges that come with autism, such as difficulty with social interactions or difficulty with change in routines.

The therapist and the adult with autism (and their families) will work together to set goals, develop treatment plans and evaluate progress. The treatment plans will be tailored to the individual’s needs and abilities, and may involve activities that are fun and engaging, such as games or art activities, to make the therapy more enjoyable and meaningful.

Another important aspect of occupational therapy for adults with autism is to help them find and maintain employment. This can start with volunteering at first, but occupational therapists may work with adults with autism to identify their interests, strengths, and skills, and then help them to find employment that is a good match for them. This may include job coaching, job shadowing, and other vocational support services. Additionally, occupational therapists may also work with adults with autism to help them improve their ability to handle the demands of work, such as time management, organization, and problem-solving, to name a few.((Harmuth, E., Silletta, E., Bailey, A., Adams, T., Beck, C., & Barbic, S. P. (2018). Barriers and facilitators to employment for adults with autism: A scoping review. Annals of International Occupational Therapy, 1(1), 31-40.))

It is also important to note that occupational therapy for adults with autism is often provided in a variety of settings, including in the individual’s home, in the community, and in the workplace. This is one strength of occupational therapy – the environmental therapy. The therapist will work closely with the individual, their family, and other members of the healthcare team to provide comprehensive, coordinated care that meets the individual’s unique needs.

The role of occupational therapy for adults with autism is not only limited to improving specific skills, but also working on a holistic approach by addressing the individual’s overall well-being and quality of life (QoL). Occupational therapists may work with individuals to help them identify and pursue their personal goals and interests, such as hobbies, leisure activities, and community involvement to make their lives more fulfilling. This can help to promote a sense of purpose and fulfillment, and improve overall mental health and well-being.

Another important aspect of occupational therapy for adults with autism is addressing the impact of the condition on the individual’s and their family’s lives, including one’s mental health. Occupational therapists may work with individuals and their families to help them adapt to the changes and challenges that come with autism, and provide support and resources to help them manage the condition such as with cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT).

One study examined the factors associated with quality of life among adults with autism spectrum disorder. They found that participants with autism spectrum disorder scored significantly lower in all domains of quality of life than did the controls. Adults with autism spectrum disorder reported higher anxiety levels, more loneliness, and higher scores on four sensory quadrants than neuro-typical adults. The researchers concluded that therefore, adults with autism spectrum disorder need more supportive social contexts and interventions to improve their quality of life. Social relationships, psychological health, and sensory processing difficulty must be considered when designing treatment programs for adults with autism spectrum disorder.((Lin, L. Y., & Huang, P. C. (2019). Quality of life and its related factors for adults with autism spectrum disorder. Disability and rehabilitation, 41(8), 896-903.))

Occupational therapy is not a one-time treatment and it may require a prolonged time to see the results. The therapy is ongoing and will adapt to the individual’s changing needs and goals over time. People with autism may already have worked with OT services at an earier age, such as in the school setting or clinic.

Occupational therapy can be beneficial in combination with other treatments and therapies such as speech therapy, psychological therapy, and behavioral therapy. Occupational therapists often work together with other members of the healthcare team to provide comprehensive, coordinated care that addresses all of the individual’s needs. This can also be a challenge as there may be potential contradictions or barriers in communication.

For adults with autism, therapy is not always the only solution, as they may also benefit from assistive technology, such as communication devices or adapted equipment, that can help them to participate in daily activities more easily. Occupational therapists can also provide guidance and support in identifying and utilizing these tools. Each individual has their own unique preferences, needs, finances, and goals.

In addition, there may be physical and virtual community resources and support groups available to adults with autism and their families. Occupational therapists may be able to provide information about these resources and help connect individuals and families with the support they need.

In conclusion, occupational therapy for adults with autism is a holistic approach that aims to improve the individual’s ability to participate in daily activities, improve their overall well-being, and enhance their quality of life. For adults with autism, it is an ongoing process that can be done in combination with other treatments and therapies, utilizing community resources and assistive technology.