"What Is Occupational Therapy Anyways?" 

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 task

  • 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 setting.


    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 processing disorders.

    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 approach.

    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 treatment!

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    Related Resources

    How To Find An Occupational Therapist Trained In SPD - Having trouble finding an OT in your area? This article will help! Includes a state-by-state listing of, and contact information for, all US Occupational Therapy Associations.

    In-Depth Article On The Interesting History Of Occupational Therapy

    OT Resources

    State Directory Of Occupational Therapy Associations

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