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How Can Physical Therapy Affect Social Skills?

If you have a child who has difficulty with social skills and I asked you what kind of therapy could help your child develop these skills, what would you say?

I can guarantee physical therapy wouldn’t be on that list.  Not even on the bottom of the list.  

I would like to share two stories from today. 

Jane is a friendly warm 7 year old girl with dyspraxia. She has never had success with academic, gross motor or fine motor activities and prefers to talk her way out of challenges.  Talking she is good at, but only with adults. She has struggled to make and keep friends.  After 2 months of participating in a treadmill program working on her visual and rhythmic movement skills, she progressed from needing to be guarded on the treadmill for safety to being able to take a running leap onto an elevated moving treadmill and then rapidly name letters and numbers while walking.  Outside of the sessions her Mom reports that she’s doing much better socially.  Mom said “I can imagine that if you can’t keep up with the kids on the playground that’s going to affect your confidence playing with the other kids.”

Mary is a very different child than Jane.  Mary is diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder.  She doesn’t have spontaneous language, has minimal eye contact and is low tone and arousal.  She would approximate “hi” and “bye” but would not combine this with eye contact or emotion.  After 2 months of participating in the same treadmill program, exercises to improve symmetry in mobility of her trunk and legs and vestibular rehab exercises, Mary is now making eye contact with a big smile on her face when saying hello and goodbye to people. In fact, she will tap them to get their attention when she is talking to them to make sure they look her in the eyes.

Coincidence?  Not in my opinion.  I believe that visual-motor skills developed in the infant and toddler serve as a foundation for social skills.  If those skills haven’t been developed, the foundation to the house is missing and skills taught will be splinter skills. If we have the choice, we want to make skills automatic rather than have the child rely on their cognitive skills to compensate.  So yes, maybe physical therapy should be added to that list of what therapies may help a child with social challenges.  Make it short-term, make it intense, and make a plan.

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4 Responses to How Can Physical Therapy Affect Social Skills?

  1. Barbara October 25, 2011 at 10:21 pm #

    This is excellent, Joni! I’m a believer, too.

  2. Your Therapy Source October 29, 2011 at 9:51 pm #

    Absolutely agree. Here is another example. A mother of a boy with autism had one goal for her son – ride a bicycle. Her son wanted to be able to ride around the neighborhood just like the other 9 year old boys. After short term physical therapy the goal was met and he could ride around the neighborhood. The young boy also added the goal of being able to shoot a basketball – again so that he could play with the other boys in his neighborhood.
    Since boys play typically is gross motor play these are crucial skills to learn for a young man especially (I know it sounds stereotypical but boys are usually more physical than girls in their play).

  3. Dr. Joni Redlich, DPT October 30, 2011 at 3:38 pm #

    Greate examples. Its so true about boys. Give the kids some solid motor skills that they can do with friends and it can make a world of difference.

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  1. Pediatric Therapy Corner: How Can Physical Therapy Affect Social Skills? - October 4, 2012

    [...] Reprinted with the express permission of Joni Redlich, DPT, as originally appeared on her Kid PT Blog, October 25, 2011 [...]

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