For those of you who are new to all of this, you might be
wondering... what IS Occupational Therapy? And, why do I keep telling you to
seek an Occupational Therapist out?
Many people have heard about occupational therapy, "OT" as we
like to call it, but often don't fully understand.
Our profession is somewhat complex, but I will do my best to
define occupational therapy and help you understand it.
What Is Occupational Therapy?...Technically, it is defined by the
American Occupational Therapy Association executive board (1976) as:
"The therapeutic use of work, self-care, and play activities to increase
development and prevent disability. It may include adaptation of task or
environment to achieve maximum independence and to enhance the quality of life."
Wow, that is a mouthful! Let me try to break it down for you.
First, let's focus on the word "occupation", since it is
THE basis for our professional "title". The dictionary definition of occupation
is, "that which chiefly engages one's time, trade, profession, or business."
One's occupation can therefore be defined as the way in which
we occupy our time. Thus, our time is divided into three categories of
activities in which we take part daily:
Self-Care: sleeping, eating, grooming, dressing, and toileting
Work: effort that is exerted to do or make something, or perform a
Leisure: free, unoccupied time in which one chooses to do something
they enjoy (i.e., hobby, tv, socializing, sports, "chill out", read, write,
listen to music, travel, etc.)
If you read these very carefully, you will see that any task or use of our time
during the day fits into one of these three categories.
This is critical to understand as our basis for the meaning
of the term "occupation". It IS how we spend our time; whether paid or unpaid,
restful or fun, obligation or choice and that which fulfills us, gives us
purpose, and allows us to interact with, be productive, and function in the
world around us to the best of our ability.
Here is where the "therapy" comes in. If, at any point in
our lives (whether present at birth or onset at a later time), illness, injury
or disability prevents us from effectively or independently functioning in one
or more "occupational" areas, then it is the job of Occupational Therapy to
provide intervention which will help you regain function, maintain level of
functioning, or make accommodations for any deficits you may be experiencing.
It is our job, as an Occupational Therapist to figure out
which areas are suffering and how we can assist that person in performing these
activities in a more functional, successful and independent way.
Occupational Therapy for Children
Occupational Therapy, more commonly associated with assisting
the elderly or equipment prescription after an accident or injury, is a little
known gold mine of help for children. The video below provides parents and
professionals with an understanding of the skills that occupational therapy can
assist children with, focusing particularly upon play, social, attention and
academic skill development in the home, child care, kindergarten and school
Some disabilities and areas of dysfunction are blatantly
obvious, but others are not. The obvious is when we help patients regain
function after recent onset of illnesses or injuries or developmental delays
such as with autism, cerebral palsy, down syndrome and the like.
The less obvious are the more silent disabilities such as mental
health, early development concerns/issues, the inability to occupy one's time in
any of the work, rest or play areas, and difficulties associated with sensory
One of the most frequent questions every Occupational
Therapist gets asked when we announce our profession is, "What is
Occupational Therapy?... Oh, is that like Physical Therapy?" Truthfully, there
are aspects of Occupational Therapy that overlap with Physical Therapy, as our
clients often have multiple issues which are best treated through a team
Although we may do activities for strengthening and increasing
movement, we approach therapy differently than PT.
Generally, Physical Therapists do exercises purely for
exercise's sake to increase strength, range of motion, and particular body and
muscle movements for the eventual outcome of increased function and mobility.
The Goal Of OT
Occupational Therapy has the same goal in mind
(increasing function and independence) in regards to physical disabilities and
limitations, and we may use repetitive exercises, but most often we use them
in the context of a "functional activity". This refers to performing meaningful
activities while simultaneously working on increasing function and mobility.
For example, suppose we have a patient with limitations in upper
extremity strength and range of motion. A Physical Therapist may have a patient
doing an arm exercise bike or repetitively lifting weights over their head
(using heavier weights as the patient tolerates). Don't misunderstand me, this
HAS it's place and definite purpose in rehab!
Occupational Therapy then takes the therapy one step further
(not a better way, just in conjunction with or in addition to). For example,
given the same physical condition, suppose we find out (which is part of our
job) that you enjoy playing basketball. We then may have you increasing your
strength, range of motion and help you regain function by engaging you in
practicing "shootin' hoops". We also would "grade" (gradually increasing
demands) the activity by starting with a light ball and low basket. As you
improved the basket would get higher and the ball heavier (I may even try to
block a few shots!). Thus, these "exercises" will allow you to regain function
and allow you to participate in the game with your maximum potential. This is
only one simple example of so many possibilities!
Physical disabilities are only one aspect of Occupational
Therapy and is usually the ONLY SIGNIFICANT aspect that will overlap with
Physical Therapy. However, in Occupational Therapy we also work on other
functional deficits, as I stated earlier; from mental health, as it
interferes with daily functioning, to developmental delays or disabilities,
as they interfere.
For example, we may help someone with a mental illness learn (or
re-learn) to use their leisure time productively, handle their symptoms, get
them back to work, or help them learn life skills such as healthy choices,
assertiveness or relaxation skills, managing their money or their stress (just
to name a few!)
Our functions are many and are often "defined" by the setting
we are in. What we do in an early intervention setting, a school, rehab,
clinic, in someone's home or in a hospital will "define" our role. This is the
reason it is sometimes difficult to answer; "what is occupational therapy?"
Thus, it IS varied (which is part of the reason our job is
misunderstood by others), but it is all based on one guiding principle no
matter which setting; that is, maintaining or increasing skills and/or
adapting environments to meet the unique needs of an individual so they may
become as independent, functional, emotionally and physically pain free, and
developmentally on target as they are capable of.
Therefore, it is clear that Occupational Therapy has a definite
role in helping/treating children with sensory processing disorders.
As you may have seen already, or may see afterwards on the
multiple pages within this site, there are many functional, developmental and
"behavioral" issues that accompany children with this disorder. Once we
correctly identify these deficits, we then have a unique role in their