What is Occupational Therapy?

If you’re on this page, chances are you’ve just met an Occupational Therapist or been told that you or a loved one needs Occupational Therapy, and you’ve got no idea what Occupational Therapy is.

No worries because we are here to help! In this article, we will break down exactly what Occupational Therapy is, who needs one and debunk any myths about Occupational Therapy!

The Definition: What is Occupational Therapy?

Occupational Therapy, or OT for short, aims to help individuals perform everyday tasks. “Occupations’ refer to daily activities the individual wants to, needs to, or are expected to do. These could be activities such as work and school, self-care activities such as showering and dressing, and leisure activities such as playing sport or socialising with friends.

What is an Occupational Therapist?

Occupational Therapists are therapists trained in Occupational Therapy who assist individuals in developing, improving and maintaining the skills needed for daily living and work. Occupational Therapists work with individuals to identify their ‘occupations’, activities that bring meaning to their life and enable an individual to perform their role in society (i.e. a son, daughter, mother, father, teacher, runner etc.). An Occupational Therapist might perform therapy in the form of assessment, advice, and intervention services.

Occupational Therapists aim to work together with clients and their families to help individuals achieve independence and success in life.

Occupational Therapists aim to help the individual achieve success in their occupations by:

  • Developing the knowledge and skills required for the occupation
  • Modify the task or the way the task is completed
  • Modify the environment or provide alternative equipment and assistive devices

Is Occupational Therapy for People with Disabilities?

While some Occupational Therapists do work with people who have a disability, Occupational Therapy is for everyone! This means Occupational Therapists work with people across the life stage, including infants, children, adolescents and adults.

Since Occupational Therapy is all about getting back to the meaningful occupations of an individual’s life, Occupational Therapists work with far more than just those who have a disability.

How is Occupational Therapy Carried Out?

The Occupational Therapy process is typically carried out through a 3 step process:

  1. Assessment
  2. Goal Setting
  3. Intervention

Assessment

Assessment is an important part of Occupational Therapy as it helps inform therapists such as Occupational Therapists the individual’s areas of strengths and weaknesses, how they are currently doing the task, and how they interact with their environment etc.

It also ensures the Occupational Therapists develop effective treatment plans to help individuals manage daily activities and occupations successfully.

Goal Setting

Goal setting helps to identify the problems or difficulties an individual faces with carrying out their occupation. It provides the therapist and client with a clearer picture of what is needed for overcoming these difficulties.

It also helps therapists such as occupational therapists develop better communication strategies with clients and their families, as they have a shared vision of the outcome, which ultimately leads to more effective interventions.

Intervention

Intervention is the area of Occupational Therapy that is often most visible.

It can take many forms, such as teaching new skills, modifying the way tasks are carried out or providing equipment to overcome difficulties.

Occupational Therapists work closely with clients and their families to ensure treatment goals are achieved successfully. Often times, consultations, conversations and advice-giving plays a large part in interventions.

Different Types of Occupational Therapy

Occupational Therapists work in different ways with different types of people. This means that there are many types of Occupational Therapists! And just because two therapists might be trained in Occupational Therapy, it doesn’t mean they perform similar tasks.

In Australia, Occupational Therapists can work across a number of areas including:

  • Mental Health
  • Geriatrics
  • Hand Rehabilitation
  • Stroke Rehabilitation
  • Community Occupation
  • Hospital Rehabilitation
  • Work Rehabilitation
  • Workplace Ergonomics
  • Paediatrics

Therefore, depending on where your Occupational Therapist has worked or gained experience from, they may be focused on only one or two of the above areas.

Mental Health

Many Occupational Therapists who work in mental health aim to help clients manage their mental health by assisting with everyday tasks.

Mental Health often includes working on a range of areas such as self-care, domestic duties, focusing and concentration, work and social interactions.

Often times, the therapist working in mental health will work closely with families and carers and other professionals such as psychiatrists and psychologists.

Occupational Therapists who work in mental health usually work with:

  • People experiencing psychosis
  • People with mood disorders, anxiety or depression
  • People with eating disorders, substance misuse issues and gambling problems
  • People coming out of rehabilitation centres from an episode of psychosis or mania (was previously known as Bipolar Disorder)
  • People with an intellectual disability

Geriatrics

Occupational Therapists can work with the geriatrics population (typically over 65 years old), typically in the community or aged care facilities. However, they do not just work with the elderly, they also work closely with their carers, families and other health professionals such as nurses to help them manage their daily living activities.

Some of the common conditions they manage are:

  • Dementia
  • Aging-related changes in cognition
  • Cardiovascular disease and diabetes
  • Diagnosis of musculoskeletal conditions such as osteoarthritis or rheumatoid arthritis

Hand Rehabilitation

Many Occupational Therapists who work in hand rehabilitation work with individuals who have had a hand injury. They also provide treatment for people who suffer from arthritis, carpal tunnel syndrome and other repetitive strain injuries.

Hand therapists often work closely with orthopaedic surgeons to manage the recovery of their clients’ hands following surgery or injury.

Stroke Rehabilitation

Occupational Therapists who work in Stroke Rehabilitation usually work with people who have had a stroke or Transient Ischaemic Attack (TIA). They often do so in hospitals and in the community.

They will help clients restore their abilities and independence by teaching them how to use the affected parts of their body again, regain movement and work closely with carers, family members and other medical professionals.

Hospital Rehabilitation

Occupational Therapists who work in Hospital Rehabilitation work with clients in the hospital due to an operation, injury or serious illness. They may also help transition these clients back home.

Some of the steps they focus on are:

  • Assessing their abilities post-injury
  • Teaching them new ways to do activities post-injury
  • Managing pain and other symptoms without the use of medication whenever possible
  • Providing advice about what to do at home when medical professionals are not around e.g. how to look after a wound
  • Teaching individuals or their carers how is the best way for them to keep themselves as safe as possible at home

Work Rehabilitation

Occupational Therapy who work in Work Rehabilitation usually work with people who have been injured at work and want to return to the workforce or people who are unable to access suitable employment.

They will help their clients find new jobs, modify equipment and aids for working while also teaching skills such as communication, social interaction and teamwork.

They will often work closely with employers and human resources to negotiate a transition into the workforce that is suitable for both the client and the business.

Common conditions they see are:

  • Workplace injuries from accidents, slips, trips or falls
  • People suffering from musculoskeletal disorders such as back pain or carpal tunnel syndrome
  • People with psychological conditions such as depression or anxiety who are unable to work
  • Mental health conditions that affect communication and social functioning, such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorders.

Workplace Ergonomics

Occupational Therapists who work in Workplace Ergonomics help workplaces modify their equipment and work environment to make them more comfortable for their staff.

They focus on ensuring that the equipment, furniture and layout of the office are suitable for the individual working there.

Some of the common conditions they manage are:

  • Repetitive Strain Injury
  • Helping employees make workstations ergonomically suitable for them to avoid injury to the upper limbs, neck and back.
  • Slips, trips and falls
  • Teaching employers how they can reduce the number of accidents that happen around the workplace. This includes how they can modify their office layout.

Community Occupational Therapist

Occupational Therapists who work as a Community OT usually work with people living in the community who face barriers to everyday life.

This could be issues such as using public transport, access to services and equipment or even social situations.

Your Occupational Therapist will often help people participate in the community by either modifying their environment to suit them better, teaching new skills or by working on strategies for managing difficult situations or scenarios.

Common conditions they work with are:

  • Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)
  • Autism Spectrum Disorders
  • Motor or sensory difficulties due to accidents or injury
  • Stroke rehabilitation clients who need help returning home after a stay in hospital
  • People with long-term mental illnesses, particularly schizophrenia and depression

Can Occupational Therapist Diagnose?

Occupational Therapists do not diagnose individuals with conditions. Doctors and psychologists can help diagnose individuals with conditions such as depression, anxiety, sensory processing disorder, Autism, ADHD etc.

In saying this, Occupational Therapists do assessments and provide reports to doctors to help with the diagnosis.

Who is Involved in Occupational Therapy?

Occupational Therapy goes beyond the traditional therapist-patient model.

Occupational Therapists aim to work together with individuals and their families. Occupational Therapists take into account the social, cultural and historical aspects of an individual’s life in order to help them achieve success and independence in daily activities. And this heavily is dependent on the people around the individual, including their family, caregiver, teachers, and community groups.

Occupational Therapists work with Other Health Professionals

Occupational Therapists work in an interdisciplinary team with other health professionals such as doctors, nurses, physiotherapists, psychologist and speech therapists.

An Occupational Therapist will often talk with:

Physiotherapists: To help people regain movement and function after injury or an illness.

Doctors: To help them understand the changes they may experience due to an illness or disability.

Speech Therapists: To help people speak or eat after an illness or injury.

Psychologists: To help with managing and overcoming psychological difficulties such as depression and anxiety.

Occupational Therapists also work closely with the individual, the family and support networks such as teachers, employers and community members to enable individuals to reach their full potential in daily life.

What are the Benefits of Occupational Therapy?

Occupational Therapists are trained to understand the positive changes that can be made when someone is engaged in meaningful occupations. This means that engaging in Occupational Therapy enables people to feel a stronger sense of purpose, independence and overall health.

Doctors add days to life. Occupational Therapists add life to days.

Occupational Therapy Training and Registration

In Australia, Occupational Therapists are professionals that require a university degree. To become an Occupational Therapist within Australia, one must complete:

A 4-year Bachelor Degree: Bachelor of Occupational Therapy

OR

A 2 year Master’s Degree: Master of Occupational Therapy (requires an underlying Bachelor Degree)

After graduation, they must be approved and certified by the national board for health professionals, Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency (AHPRA). All practising OTs within Australia must be currently registered with AHPRA. Similar organisations for registration exist in different countries, for example in the USA you have the American Occupational Therapy Association.

To maintain ongoing registration, each year Occupational Therapists are required to keep attending professional development courses. In Australia, this is between 20-30 hours each year.

What is Paediatric Occupational Therapy?

Paediatric Occupational Therapy is Occupational Therapy that is carried out with children. Just like all of us, children too, have occupations. A child’s occupations are specific to their stages of development and can range from activities like playing with toys, self-care (such as brushing teeth) and attending school.

What skills do Paediatric Occupational Therapists work on?

Paediatric Occupational Therapists are typically asked to provide assessment, therapy and consultation to children & their families when they have difficulties with one or more of the following issues:

  • Child development including is your child meeting developmental milestones and what are the next milestones for your child
  • Self-Care activities/Activities of daily living, such as toileting, dressing, and feeding
  • Gross motor skills, including hand-eye coordination and core strength
  • Fine motor skills, including manual dexterity and strength
  • Participation and engagement in daily activities and routines
  • Attention and concentration in daily activities and routines
  • Sensory processing difficulties
  • Toileting
  • Behavioural issues
  • Social skills and play
  • Self-regulation including emotional regulation and alertness
  • School Readiness
  • Prescription of equipment

In addition to helping children develop their knowledge and skills in certain skill areas, Paediatric Occupational Therapists also work with the child’s family and school education team.

Working with the child’s whole support network ensures there is a good understanding about the child (including their diagnosis, if any), strategies that help the child and how to better support the child in the child’s typical environments.

What diagnoses can Paediatric Occupational Therapists help with?

Occupational Therapists work with children with and without a diagnosis. We have experience in working with children with a range of conditions including:

  • Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)
  • Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • Intellectual impairment
  • Global Developmental Delay (GDD)
  • Cerebral Palsy
  • Downs Syndrome
  • Sensory Processing Disorder
  • Learning problems
  • Social emotional challenges
  • Anxiety
  • Developmental delays
  • Behavioural difficulties

Some OT Related FAQs

When Did Occupational Therapy Start?

The World Federation of Occupational Therapists (WFOT) formally started in 1951, but Occupational Therapy has been around longer than that. In the early part of the 20th century, what we now know as Occupational Therapy was informally practised by nurses who were caring for soldiers injured during World War I.  

What Are Some Pros and Cons of an OT Career?

Occupational Therapy enables people to live more rich and fulfilled lives. And in that way, it is an amazing career if you enjoy helping people. OTs are university educated professionals, so the study time & effort is higher than most courses, however, the pay is currently good in Australia due to demand. The largest downside of a career in Occupational Therapy services is the emotional toll it can take on an OT, as you are often involved in the person’s wellbeing.

What is a typical day like for an Occupational Therapist?

A day in the life of an Occupational Therapist varies greatly, depending on the setting and type of position they are working in. For example, if you work in a hospital or rehab centre then your patients will need therapy services each day of the week. If you work in a clinic and provide home services, there may be less contact with patients and therefore less of a routine.  

What Countries Practice Occupational Therapy?

Occupational Therapy is carried out in almost all countries in some form or another. However, only certain countries practice Occupational Therapy extensively, with the profession growing in popularity in Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, Canada and the United States.

Are OTs under NDIS?

In Australia, the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) is available to those who experience disability. Occupational Therapists constantly work with people living with permanent and significant disabilities. Therefore many, Occupational Therapy clinics & therapists are funded by the NDIS to work with a client to achieve their goals.

Who are Occupational Therapy Assistants?

An Occupational Therapy Assistant (OTA) work under the guidance of an Occupational Therapist to perform the treatment to the client. An OTA does not have the same qualifications as an OT. OTA can help Occupational Therapists within a session, or can carry out a treatment plan where the OT is not present.

Helpful Websites

Check out the following website for more information about Occupational Therapy for Children.

Ready Kids Occupational Therapy

Occupational Therapy Australia

Raising Children Network

Understood.org