What Does an Occupational Therapist Do?
Occupational therapy has been around for more than a century, having been practiced since its founding in upstate New York around 1915. But what is occupational therapy?
At its core, occupational therapy is about helping people recover from injuries or illness through purposeful daily activities, or “human occupations.” Such occupations include basic self-care, work, play and leisure activities. While getting dressed, brushing your teeth or throwing a ball seem automatic to some of us, those who have had an injury or have been diagnosed with a neurological disorder or developmental condition may need specialized therapy to regain these skills.
The origins of occupational therapy
Treatments in line with occupational therapy have been practiced in Europe for several centuries, but it wasn’t until the early 1900s that what we know as occupational therapy today gained recognition. Structured educational programs for occupational therapists were developed around 1915. At the time, occupational therapy contrasted many accepted medical norms: Rather than bed rest or institutionalization, for example, occupational therapy stressed the importance of activity.
The field gained broad publicity during World War I, when injured soldiers returning to the home front commonly worked with occupational therapists to regain their function before reentering into work and leisure activities. Today, occupational therapists continue to work with patients to achieve independence in their daily activities. But the field has grown in the last 100 years.
What do occupational therapists do?
While each therapist may specialize in a different area, they can work with you to master skills related to basic self-care, work, leisure or play activities, including:
- Dressing, feeding, personal hygiene, cooking and home care,
- Using your hands to purposefully move or manipulate objects,
- Developing hand/eye coordination,
- Adapting your environment for safety and independence,
- Improving visual perceptual skills (understanding the things you see), and
- Managing feeding issues, sensory motor processing deficits and developmental delays in children.
Occupational therapy is an expansive field with dozens of specialties ranging from hand therapy to pediatrics to stroke recovery. Here are some things you might see different types of occupational therapists doing at work.
- Pediatrics: Working with babies in on feeding and positioning or helping children with neurological injuries progress toward developmental milestones
- Neurology: Helping stroke survivors relearn how to perform basic self-care tasks to help maintain independence.
- Hand therapy: Creating custom splints and working with patients recovering from hand injuries.
- Adaptive equipment: Making recommendations and training older people how to use adaptive equipment that helps them age safely and independently at home. Working with people learning to drive in an adapted vehicle.
In addition to working across many specialties, occupational therapists also work in many different healthcare environments including hospital and intensive care units (like the NICU), skilled nursing facilities, schools and out-patient therapy clinics.
When should I see an occupational therapist?
Occupational therapy is for all ages and abilities. You may benefit from seeing an occupational therapist if you:
- Have difficulty performing tasks you once found easy
- Have not been able to return to you regular level of function following an illness or injury
- Have a child who is not achieving their developmental milestones