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Occupational Therapy

What Is Occupational Therapy?

Occupational therapy (OT) treatment helps people who have physical, sensory, or cognitive problems. OT can help them be as independent as possible in all areas of their lives.

Occupational therapists also focus on emotional, social, and environmental things that can affect how kids function. This approach makes OT a vital part of health care for some kids.

Who Might Need Occupational Therapy?

OT can help kids and teens who have:

  • birth injuries or birth defects
  • sensory processing disorders
  • traumatic injuries to the brain or spinal cord
  • learning problems
  • autism
  • juvenile rheumatoid arthritis
  • mental health or behavioral problems
  • broken bones or other orthopedic injuries
  • developmental delays
  • post-surgical conditions
  • burns
  • spina bifida
  • traumatic amputations
  • cancer
  • severe hand injuries
  • multiple sclerosis, cerebral palsy, and other chronic illnesses

OT can improve their cognitive, physical, sensory, and motor skills and enhance their self-esteem and sense of accomplishment. To do this, occupational therapists might:

  • help kids work on fine motor skills so they can grasp and release toys and develop good handwriting skills
  • evaluate kids' skills for playing, school performance, and daily activities
  • work on hand–eye coordination to improve kids' play and school skills (hitting a target, batting a ball, copying from a blackboard, etc.)
  • help kids with severe developmental delays learn basic tasks, such as bathing, getting dressed, brushing their teeth, and feeding themselves
  • help kids with behavioral disorders learn positive behaviors, For example, instead of hitting others or acting out, they learn positive ways to deal with anger, such as writing about feelings.
  • teach kids with physical disabilities the coordination skills needed to feed themselves, use a computer, or improve their handwriting
  • see if a child might need special equipment, such as wheelchairs, splints, bathing equipment, dressing devices, or communication aids
  • work with kids who have sensory and attention issues to improve focus and social skills

How Do Physical Therapy and Occupational Therapy Differ?

Physical therapy and occupational therapy both help improve kids' quality of life, but there are differences. Physical therapy (PT) helps with:

  • pain
  • strength
  • joint range of motion
  • endurance
  • gross motor skills (large-muscle movements made with the arms, legs, feet, or entire body)

Occupational therapy helps with:

  • fine motor skills (small-muscle movements made with the hands, fingers, and toes, such as grasping)
  • visual-perceptual skills
  • cognitive (thinking) skills
  • sensory-processing problems

Who Does Occupational Therapy?

The two professional levels of occupational practice are:

  • Occupational therapist (OT): An OT has a 4-year bachelor's degree in a related field (such as biology, psychology, or health science) and a master's degree from an accredited occupational therapy program.
  • Occupational therapist assistant (OTA): An OTA has an associate's degree from an accredited OTA program. They can carry out treatment plans developed by an OT but can't do patient evaluations.

OTs and OTAs must complete supervised fieldwork programs and pass a national certification exam. A license to practice is mandatory in most states, as are continuing education classes.

Occupational therapists work in a variety of settings, including:

  • hospitals
  • schools
  • rehabilitation centers
  • mental health facilities
  • private practices
  • children's clinics
  • nursing homes

How Can We Find an Occupational Therapist?

If you think occupational therapy could help your child, you can:

  • Ask your doctor to refer you to a specialist.
  • Talk to the school nurse or guidance counselor. They might be able to recommend someone based on your child's academic or social needs.
  • Contact your state's occupational therapy association or a nearby hospital or rehabilitation center for referrals.
Date reviewed: March 2014