Wednesday, December 8, 2010

What is Occupational Therapy?

I'm a little behind my blog postings these last couple of weeks - I blame the frenzied pace of the holiday season but things will settle down again soon and I'll be back on my regular blog posting schedule.  :)  In the meantime, I just had a delightful lunch today with a sweet college student who is thinking about becoming an occupational therapy assistant and eventually an occupational therapist.  In my preparation for our meeting, I went searching through my email archives and found an email that I wrote almost a year ago to another young student exploring occupational therapy as a profession and I thought I would post my response to her questions as it may be helpful to other folks considering this great profession.  :)

What do you find satisfying about your job?
Oh my - there are too many things!  Since I have primarily worked with kids, I think the most satisfying has been seeing a child reach a milestone or goal and knowing that I was able to help in some way.  Another thing about working with kids is that I always have a good laugh with them - kids simply don't take life seriously and working with them forces me to not take it so seriously either!  :)

Was it hard to find a job?
I graduated OT school in 1994 and had several offers before I even graduated but a few years later (late 90's), it was a little harder to find jobs because of the Balanced Budget Act (but most OTs still found a job within a month or two of graduating).  Today, OT is experiencing a 25-30% job shortage - so many of my students have jobs before they’ve graduated.

How many college hours did you need to graduate?
When I entered OT school, it was when a Bachelor of Science was the entry-level requirement.  In order to be an OT today, you must get a Master's degree in OT.  The number of hours needed to graduate is dependent on the school that you attend and the type of program they offer.  For instance at the college I taught at for the last five years (Elizabethtown College in PA), you would enter the OT program as a freshman, graduate with a Bachelor of Health and Occupations and then return (as long as you had a 3.0 gpa) for a graduate year for a Master's of Occupational Therapy; this program is a total of 74 OT undergraduate hours and 48 core undergraduate hours and 34 graduate hours.  You would also have to complete a minimum of 6 months of Level II Fieldwork (usually two 3 month affiliations) in which you would work as an OT under the supervision of another OT. 

Other programs such as the one at Seton Hall University (in NJ), you would get a bachelor's degree in a related field (ie: psychology, biology, etc.) and then enroll in their 2 year (including summers) Master's program which is a total of 84 hours and also complete 6 months Level II Fieldwork.

Texas Tech University (where I've also taught) would have you complete 3 years of undergraduate courses (core and additional science courses that total at least 90 hours), apply for the program and if accepted, then you would take 2 years of graduate level courses including summers (88 hours) and graduate with a Master's degree.  Unlike the types of programs for Elizabethtown College and Seton Hall University, you would not get a bachelor's degree - just go straight to a Master's degree.

Some larger programs like Texas Woman's University (which is where I went for all three of my degrees - BS in OT, MA in OT and PhD in OT), offer all three types of programs that I listed above. 

Once you've completed any of the programs, you would then sit for a national certification exam.

What age group of patients do you work with?
I personally work primarily with pediatrics - 0 to 21 years.  However OT is involved with patients throughout the lifespan.

What kind of games do you play with little children?  What activities do you do with adults?
With either group, OT focuses on the occupations of the client so if I am working with a child, his/her occupations are likely in the areas of social participation (ie: interacting and/or playing with peers), education (pre-school and school activities), activities of daily living (ie: dressing, eating), rest and sleep, and play.  With an adult, the occupations are likely related to activities of daily living, instrumental activities of daily living (ie: driving), work, play/leisure, rest and sleep and social participation.  As for specific activities, I've listed below a sampling of some of my actual clients over the past 16 years and what I did with them. 
  • with a 5 year old child with autism who wants to play with his peers but doesn't really quite know how to do it (this is common for kids with autism), I did activities in which he and two peers played "Mother, May I" or Twister or a board game or Bingo. 
  • with an adolescent who has cerebral palsy (CP) and is in regular education classes but can't keep up with note-taking (the CP affects her handwriting endurance and legibility), I taught her one-handed typing and use of software programs like word-prediction softare such as Co:Writer, which allows the user to type a letter, then suggests up to 9 words which begin with that letter.  The user chooses the desired word by typing the number in front of the word or by clicking on the word with the mouse.  The software then automatically spaces and makes suggestions for the next word.  If the desired word is not in the list, the user types in the second letter, and repeats the process.  When a word unknown to the program is typed in, it remembers it and will suggest it in the future. So if a student was typing in words related to her chemistry class such as 'evaporation' or 'molecules' or 'atomic', it would remember it the next time and list it the next time she typed in the first letter of that word.) 
  • for an physician who was hit by a drunk driver that resulted in his having to have his left arm amputated at the shoulder, I did activities such as teaching him how to dress one-handed (I even learned how to tie a tie one-handed so I could teach him), using an adaptive fork/knife so that he could cut and cook and eat food, one-handed typing so that he could continue to do documentation, one-handed diaper changing (he had a 2 year old toddler at home), car maintenance (and driving) with adaptive equipment using one-hand, and using equipment (an ultramicrotome and cryostat) that was specific to his work as a neurologist and researcher. 
  • for a man in his late 60's who had a massive cerebral vascular accident (CVA or stroke), I worked with him at home (I did homehealth care then) on sitting endurance by playing solitaire (he sat bedside while I moved the cards for hm according to what he told me), feeding himself, transfers from bed to chair, propelling himself in his wheelchair from the bedroom to the dining room to eat and then back.
What age groups do you like working with the best?
All age groups but I do confess I love kids the most - probably for the reason I said above in that I can't take life too seriously when I'm with them.  :)

What is the starting salary for an occupational therapist?  That varies depending on location (the NE pays better than in the South) and setting (pediatrics is typically lower than long-term care).  The American Occupational Therapy Association just published in the September 13, 2010 issue of OT Practice, the results of a workplace survey on where occupational therapists and occupational therapy assistants are working (geographically and in setting types like schools, rehab facilities, hospitals, etc.) and the salaries each OTs and OTAs are making.  This comprehensive report can be found here (click here to see this report).  My new grad students are reporting anywhere from $55,000 to $75,000.

Do you have a dress code?
This primarily depends on the setting.  In school-based, it might be what teachers typically wear but in a hospital it might be scrubs.  For OT students going out on fieldwork, we typically say that khakis with a polo shirt or button-down shirt is the dress code that works in just about every setting.

Do you have summers and holidays like Christmas off? 
Only if you work in school-based settings.  About 25% of OTs work in school-based settings (ie: public schools and private schools and state schools) and many have holiday breaks and may or may not have the whole summer off.  When I worked for a school district, we had about 6 weeks of the summer break off.  OTs also work in long-term care (nursing home), outpatient rehab, hospitals, homehealth or group homes and these settings you might only have 2-3 weeks of vacation a year and therapists may have to work holidays.

Thank you so much for answering my questions - I'm excited about the  possibility of becoming an occupational therapist!
You are more than welcome!  I do hope you become an OT, I think it's the best work in the world!  :)


  1. I need this article to complete my assignment in the college, and it has same topic with your article. Thanks, great share. Occupational Therapy Assistant

  2. In its simplest terms, occupational therapists and occupational therapy assistants help people across the lifespan participate in the things they want and need to do through the therapeutic use of everyday activities (occupations).