En route to Professional Change: Expanding the Physical Therapy Toolbox for Early Screening of Autistic Spectrum Disorder During Infancy

Osnat Atun-Einy, Tal Shahar Ashkenazi

1 Department of Physical Therapy, University of  Haifa
2 Pediatrics Coordinator, The National Department of Physiotherapy, Ministry of Health


There is a consensus in the literature regarding the importance of early detection of autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Early ASD screening enables adequate early intervention, which has a beneficial effect on child development and on the family’s adaptation to the new reality. Early screening is a complex task that requires the involvement of a skillful multidisciplinary team. In recent years, the physical therapy (PT) profession has become part of the multidisciplinary team that treats children with ASD. Expanding physical therapists’ involvement for this population requires broadening the functional prism regarding evaluation and therapeutic intervention. 

The role of physical therapy in the field of autism includes several intervention areas, including early screening. The physical therapist meets an infant at risk for ASD at an important crossroads in the child’s development. An encounter at the infancy stage may facilitate early detection, given that physical therapists possess the skill to identify a-typical movement patterns, they meet regularly with infants and toddlers at risk for ASD, and are engaged in continuous therapeutic interactions. Thus, they are able to sample a child’s representative behaviors over time, while forging a meaningful relationship with the parents, all of which provides a ground for expressing parental concerns.
Early ASD screening by physical therapists involves the acquisition of specific knowledge and skills, which in turn creates a demand for expanding and refining the contents of the professional toolbox. Studies that have examined physical therapists’ ASD-related knowledge and self-efficacy levels have indicated knowledge gaps regarding the criteria for diagnosis and for early detection of ASD, and indicated that physical therapists are in need of additional ASD training.

This article presents the research developments in early ASD screening and their potential practical and professional implications for the work of physical therapists as members of the multidisciplinary team screening and treating infants with ASD. 

Keywords: Autism Spectrum Disorder, ASD, Developmental Risk, Early Screening, Infant Evaluation Processes, Early Signs, Physical Therap
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