Parent-Powered Therapies

Do-it-yourself creativity can turn your home into an effective therapy center, saving you money and strengthening bonds with your ASD child…

My ten-year-old son has been in some form of therapy weekly for the last eight years.  From physical therapy to speech, occupational, behavioral and social skills, Ronan has logged thousands of hours of therapy.  It’s been a way of life for him and will likely continue to be that way for some time.

Here, There, And Everywhere

Ronan has four typical siblings, and I was somewhat taken aback when his six-year-old sister was recently referred for vision therapy.  As Ronan’s needs have taken over much of our family’s time and energy, I was unprepared to carve more time in our full calendar to shuttle Izzy to and from therapy three days a week.  However, therapy would reduce her vision issues and academic struggles that crept up last year, so getting her where she needed to be was exactly what I’d do.

Taking two kids several days a week here, there and everywhere is taxing not only on the kids but on our schedule, finances and emotions.  We juggle so much already, so finding supplemental, inexpensive therapy ideas that we could do at home to benefit both Ronan and Izzy was my goal.  As I don’t have the professional background our therapists do, I asked them for advice before starting home-based activities.  I didn’t want to hinder or interrupt any skills my children were developing.

To follow through with the kids’ therapy “homework” and to work within a reasonable budget, I borrowed books and supplies from our therapists and borrowed college library books because of the wide selection and current titles.  I got ideas from therapy-specific magazines and catalogs, and looked up websites with “For Parent” sections that described therapies, target skills, and areas to be developed in simple terms.  There was a great deal of information on setting up a home environment and applying therapeutic goals to foster effective, successful learning moments.

Home Sweet Home

Activities that we’ve been able to replicate were just a few household items away!  Izzy’s vision therapy hones in on eye-hand coordination, focusing close up, and following directions.  Much of it is very similar to Ronan’s occupational therapy.  We’ve had fun popping bubble wrap (office supply stores have this in large rolls) and using tweezers to transfer dried beans into small containers.

Anytime we can get food involved is also fun:  skewering grapes on shish-kabob sticks, stringing popcorn on string (or fishing line if you need something sturdier), and picking up marshmallows with toothpicks.  Use an ice cube tray to serve snacks so your child practices fine-motor and eye-hand coordination.  Most of those activities can be quickly set up, are readily available and easily cleaned up.

I usually tell my children that they can’t throw their toys unless they’re outside playing with balls.  Playing a bean bag toss game with their small stuffed animals (if you don’t have an actual bean bag) is fun because it bends a regular rule and can add an element of competition.  Your target can be a large mixing bowl or a hula hoop.  Depending on the child’s ability, you can place the hula hoop right at their feet or scoot it farther away with each toss.  Then hold the hula hoop in the air so your child focuses their toss at a different angle, speed and trajectory.  Take a step back with each successful toss.  If your child loves a challenge, keep score!

Set up a therapy corner with shelves that house separate bins full of manipulatives which you can rotate out after several weeks to maintain interest:

  • small chalkboards and chalk
  • play dough and cookie cutters
  • scissors and paper of varying thickness
  • tracing and lacing cards
  • therapy dough (great for hiding small LEGOs in!)
  • beads for stringing
  • stamps and stamp pads
  • dominoes
  • picture cards for matching
  • clothes pins
  • pipe cleaners
  • magnetic board and magnets
  • dress-up bin to practice donning and doffing clothes.

Expand Your Options

To maximize the potential benefits of in-home therapy, consider alterations to accommodate various activities.  We’ve done this several times over the years having installed swings and a pull up bar, and created space for a home-made wooden balance beam.  We’ve also brought in a small blow-up wading pool and filled it with plastic balls, and found a used mini trampoline for sensory input.  An in-home obstacle course is one of the most exciting activities we do inside after rearranging some of the furniture.  We then bring out tunnels, a small plastic slide, a pop-up house and sometimes even use the pillows from the couch!

The entire house—including the walls—have therapeutic potential.  Chalkboard paint and shower board (found at home improvement stores) foster creativity and a host of ideas:  play Tic Tac Toe or Pictionary.  Practice how to make the basic lines of the letters (horizontal, vertical, circular, slash), numbers and shapes.  Or just enjoy drawing together.

Real Help—Without Breaking The Bank

Therapy on a budget is quite doable.  Many items found in several rooms in your home can serve a different purpose.  Think about how they are typically used, then look at the objects again and ask, “What else can I do with these?”  If it can be lifted, squeezed, dropped into, counted, or sorted, then you have already cut your costs.  If you find that you don’t have anything useful for therapy, make a list of what you’d like to have.  Then, go to thrift stores or the clearance rack of department stores and start hunting for deals.

Check out websites like Freecycle or Craig’s List for specific items for which you won’t pay full price.  Don’t forget about the library!  Some libraries will have puzzles, themed kits, videos and games to loan. Swap therapy ideas and supplies with a friend.  Look on Pinterest for ideas on how to make your own games and projects.  Not only will you save money that might have been spent on formal therapy, but you and your child will have fun interacting as he learns important new skills.

Take It Outside

Anytime you can transfer activities outside is great.  A change in scenery, being able to use gross-motor movement and getting some natural sunshine are great benefits of being outdoors.  Blow bubbles, chase them and pop them.  Use a jump rope the traditional way or pretend it’s a tightrope walking on it as it lays flat on the ground.  Pull or push a wagon filled with different objects to give it some weight.  Play hopscotch, Simon Says, Mother May I, Red Rover and Hide and Seek.  You’ll surely share some giggles and can foster basic back-and-forth play while creating good memories.

Fine motor skills activities can even be brought outside.  Set up a water table in the yard with different objects and test if they sink or float.  If you can’t afford a water table that the pricey toy catalogs sell, take a plastic storage bin and fill it with water. Use different-sized measuring cups to transfer water using the dominant hand to pour at the beginning of the activity, and then switch to the non-dominant hand at the end.  Add sponges to the game.  Soak the sponge and then ask your child to squeeze it—use only the fingertips at first.  Switch hands to work on strengthening both.

When the water play is done, keep the water in the tub and use paintbrushes to “paint” the house, the fence, the driveway or sidewalk.  Use up and down, left to right movement always trying to cross the midline.  “Paint” letters, numbers, sight words, and shapes.  Keep a spray bottle close by when playing with the water table, too.  You can spray “paint” trees, flowers, and bushes as your child strengthens his hand muscles.  Have him aim for certain parts of objects, use sweeping motions left to right and up and down; make vertical and horizontal lines and again, try to cross the midline.  When dry, put other sensory-type items in the tub:  noodles, rice, beach sand, cotton balls or beads.  Use different-sized plastic containers and ladles, stirring or measuring spoons, tongs and strainers that you probably already have in the kitchen.

While still outside, plan for a picnic.  If your child has a poor memory recall, hand him the items one at a time after playing a labeling game, saying “I’m going to give you something that we put the juice in.”  Once he guesses “cup” correctly, hand it to him and ask him to grab it with his non-dominant hand.  Have your child set the items in a pattern:  cup, plate, napkin and repeat.  If he needs help putting things in the right spot, use direction words:  next to, in front of, to the left of, or to the right of.  Take turns passing the snack items out to practice social skills and good manners.

After eating and cleaning up, take some confetti (either store-bought or keep it simple and use hole-punched paper) and toss it into a small section of grass.  Ask your child to find 10 pieces before you count (jazz it up and count backwards from a certain number).  They can use their fingers, tweezers or tongs to find the pieces.  Have a small lidded plastic butter tub (cut the lid so it has a slit like a piggy bank).  As your child collects the small bits of confetti, he transfers the confetti into the tub.  You can also use a tennis ball, making a slit about 2 inches long.  The ball will have to be squeezed (start with the fingertips) in order to open the slit to deposit the confetti inside.  If your child likes a challenge, set a timer and ask him to collect a certain amount of confetti in under one minute.

If formal therapy isn’t an option for parents of children 0-3 years of age, investigate services through the local Early Intervention program.  School-age homeschooled children may qualify for funding for therapy through the local school district.  Call your district’s special education or related services department to find out more.  If you live near a university, ask the department head of the psychology, speech and language, physical therapy, occupational therapy services or education departments if they offer reduced cost therapy session opportunities.  Keep in mind that students in training would be paired with your child so make sure you are comfortable with working with an unlicensed (yet supervised) student.  Parents can also learn from observing a trained therapist in the clinical setting.  I’ve often been invited into the therapy room, or observed through a two-way mirrored window, in order to keep up-to-date with my children’s therapy progress.


Biomedical Treatments On A Budget

By Holly Bortfeld 

Many treatments that are effective and safe for people with ASD are often not covered by insurance, but please don’t let that stop you from trying treatments that can help your children down the path to health and wellness.

1. Educate yourself.  Learn how to research treatments and determine if the chances are good that your child will respond.

Read books, websites and use the medical libraries free at your local hospitals. Read about treatments, lab tests, and information you wish to discuss prior to your doctor appointments.

2. Know your child. Keep copies of all medical records. Learn what the external signs of conditions look like in your child so you can report and treat them properly.

Create a profile for your child through his/her test results and responses to treatments.  Keep a journal when trying new treatments of any kind. Keep copies of every lab test, doctor appointment, therapist report, school report, IEP, etc.

3. Use your insurance for all doctors and labs possible. Code treatments for the actual condition, not the autism umbrella.

Unfortunately, not all doctors accept insurance, especially in autism. Explain to the doctor that you need to use insurance-covered labs whenever possible, not the boutique/specialty labs unless there is a really good reason and then they need to limit those to fit your budget. If the doctor is not willing to work with you on this, you might need to consider finding another physician.

4. Use your state’s Medicaid or waiver programs to cover what the insurance company doesn’t.

Medicaid programs usually will not cover any autism “specialists,” tests or treatments, but they will generally pick up co-pays for visits and prescriptions and lab tests performed at hospitals.

5. Find out if your insurance will cover compounded vitamins and supplements. Start with trial-sized bottles of vitamins first to see if your child will tolerate them before you spend a lot of money.

Some insurance companies will cover vitamins and supplements if you have them compounded into liquids or powders to fit a prescription from a physician. Ask about trial sizes too.

6. Cook your own special diet foods. Cook from scratch, or like people used to cook before stuff came in boxes.

Do you remember seeing your grandma cook dinner when you came to visit?  There were no boxes.  Just real, whole foods.  Cook a meat, a vegetable, and a starch per meal.  It’s much cheaper than anything pre-made or partially prepared.

7. Never start more than one treatment, of any kind, within a two to three week period.

If there’s a problem, you need to know what is causing it. By trying one treatment at a time, you’ll know exactly if that one new treatment is causing the reaction (good or bad) rather than stopping everything and starting all over again if there are too many treatments and responses/reactions in your child to track.

8. Get your local insurance-covered pediatrician to rewrite the MAPS (see Find Out More, right) doctor scripts so that your insurance will cover them.

If you must use a specialty doctor that isn’t on your insurance plan, or a specialty lab, find out if your insurance covered physician is willing to rewrite the prescriptions so that your insurance will cover the tests and/or treatments.

9. Don’t keep wasting time and money on any doctor or treatment if you are not seeing results.

Just because a doctor says, “Ninety percent of my kids do well with this,” doesn’t mean your child will be one of that 90%. If you feel like your child is doing poorly with a treatment, don’t be afraid to tell your doctor you want to discontinue the treatment.

10. Find creative ways to pay for your biomedical program

Hold bake sales, use bartering, grants, family gifts, etc. and write it all off on your taxes.


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