We spend our waking hours eating, studying, driving, exercising. It’s easy to take daily activities like these for granted. While these aren’t “occupations” in the career sense, they are no less important than jobs people are paid to do. Injuries and disabilities make routine tasks harder. But specialized treatments can help people function as normal as possible.

What Is Occupational Therapy?

Occupational therapy (OT) is different from other branches of healthcare because it focuses on tasks. It explores all parts of a patient’s life to see how that person can function better. Physical and mental health affect whether a person can take part in everyday activities. So does the environment in which a person lives and works. Whether a patient needs to gain new abilities and skills, or recover lost ones, OT can help.

Like other healthcare workers, occupational therapists (OTs) read and maintain medical records. They ask questions and evaluate patients before developing treatment plans. But OTs don’t prescribe medicine or perform surgeries. Instead, OTs work closely with patients experiencing physical and cognitive difficulties to set reachable goals. OTs perform duties that sometimes look like physical therapy, such as helping people with arthritis exercise. But most often treatment is task-oriented, as when OTs teach stroke victims how to dress themselves. Practitioners look at patients’ homes to identify ways to make those spaces easier to use. For patients with thinking-related challenges, OTs might suggest labeling items in the home to aid memory. OTs may also recommend equipment, such as wheelchairs and grab bars, that give patients more mobility. As treatments progress, OTs meet with patients to make sure goals are being met, and revise treatment plans as needed. 

Hospitals, clinics, schools, and nursing homes offer occupational therapy services. Home healthcare services offer OT as well.

Occupational Therapy for Children

OTs help patients of all ages to become more independent. This includes children with cognitive, physical, or sensory issues. These range from developmental delays to severe disabilities. While some developmental issues are known from birth, others may not appear until after a child enters kindergarten. School districts employ OTs, along with speech and other therapists. Early intervention programs help identify and correct developmental issues. As the American Occupational Therapy Association states, “Common occupational therapy interventions include helping children with disabilities to participate fully in school and social situations.”

An occupational therapist works with children to accomplish task-oriented goals. This professional helps children gain motor skills for activities like grasping objects, writing legibly, and typing. Through games and activities, children develop physical and hand-eye coordination. OTs teach children life skills related to self-care, like brushing teeth and tying shoelaces. They assist teachers in modifying classroom spaces and activities. Therapists also make sure parents understand treatment plans and know how to support their child. OT treatments may end after several sessions, or may be more long term, depending on the issue.

Occupational Therapy for Adults

The need for independence increases with age and responsibility. Adults struggling with occupational issues regain some of this freedom through OT. Treatment plans may include life skill development, like creating a budget, planning meals, cleaning house, and staying organized. OTs provide coping strategies for people with a history of substance abuse or mental illness. Therapists help employers adapt work spaces so that people with disabilities can function better on the job. OTs also offer support for older adults, like patients with memory loss or limited mobility.

How to Become an Occupational Therapist

If you’re considering OT as a career, you’ll need a solid foundation in science. Undergrad coursework should include biology, anatomy, physiology, psychology, human development, and sociology. Entry-level occupational therapy practitioners must be licensed and hold at least a master’s degree. But many students choose to earn a doctorate instead. This degree program includes additional clinical experience and evidence-based practice. Presbyterian College’s three-year Occupational Therapy Doctoral Program helps you enter the field as an independent and adaptable OT.