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"Autism has been at the forefront of my adult life, on the job and at home," says Karen Tartick, PT. "I understand it as a physical therapist and I understand it as a parent."


What Tartick, a longtime physical therapist (PT) for the Durham Public Schools in North Carolina, understands professionally is that PTs like her, working with other members of an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) team, can enhance the lives of children with autism. She knows—from a growing body of evidence-based research and her own practice—that PTs can help children with autism more fully participate in daily routines at home and at school, acquire new motor skills, develop better coordination and more stable posture, improve their reciprocal-play skills (such as throwing and catching a ball with another person), develop motor imitation skills (copying an action performed by someone else), and increase their fitness and stamina.

"The great thing for PTs is that exercise and structured play groups both are evidence-based practices for children with autism,"1,2 Tartick says. "That is absolutely beautiful to me, because facilitating and promoting exercise and wellness is such a huge part of what PTs do. And it's been shown to have positive effects in children with autism that extend beyond physical health. It can decrease their maladaptive behaviors and aggression, make them more on-task, improve their academic abilities, and have a big, positive impact on their quality of life."

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  1. Wong C, Odom SL, Hume KA, et al. Evidence-based practices for children, youth, and young adults with autism spectrum disorder: a comprehensive review. J Autism Dev Disord. 2015;45(7)1951-1966.
  2. Lang S, Koegel LK, Ashbaugh K, Smith W. Physical exercise and individuals wityh autism spectrum disorders: a systematic review. Res Autism Spectr Disord. 2010;4(4):565-576.
  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Autism Data and Statistics. Accessed April 9, 2018.
  4. Wright B. The real reasons autism rates are up in the US. Scientific American. March 3, 2017. Accessed April 9, 2018.
  5. American Physical Therapy Association. Physical Therapist's Guide to Autism Spectrum Disorder. Accessed April 9, 2018.
  6. MacDonald M, Lord C, Ulrich DA. Motor skills and calibrated autism severity in young children with autism spectrum disorder. Adapt Phys Activ Q. 2014;31:95-105
  7. Lloyd M, MacDonald M, Lord C. Motor skills of toddlers with autism spectrum disorder. Autism. 2013;17(2):133146.
  8. Green D, Charman T, Pickles A, et al. Impairment in movement skills of children with autism spectrum disorders. Dev Med Child Neurol. 2009;51(4):311-316.
  9. Dawson G, Munson J, Rogers S, et al. Randomized, controlled trial of an intervention for toddlers with autism: the early start Denver model. Pediatrics. 2010;125(1):17-23.
  10. Wulf G, Lewthwaite R. Optimizing Performance through intrinsic motivation and attention for learning: the OPTIMAL theory of motor learning. Psychon Bull Rev. 2016;23(5):1382-1414.
  11. Roux AM, Shattuck PT, Rast JE, Anderson KA. National Autism Indicators Report: Developmental Disability Services and Outcomes in Adulthood. Philadelphia, PA: Life Course Outcomes Research Program, AJ Drexel Autism Institute. 2017.
  12. Rosenbaum P, Gorter JW. The "F-words" in child disability: I swear this is how we should think! Child Care Health Dev. 2012;38(4):457-463.

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