What is Occupational Therapy?

When I tell people I am a Pediatric Occupational Therapist I frequently get a rather puzzled look, followed by “children do not have/need jobs”?!  Even those who have heard of Occupational Therapy or have some experience with the profession say, “Oh that is great you work with children! What is it that you do with them?”  Since opening Grow Thru Play I have had to answer this question over and over again and usually to people that want a very simple answer (e.g., the Zoning Board of Philadelphia.)  One thing that I do know about my profession is that sometimes it is not so simple to explain.

To clarify, let’s look at the way the American Occupational Therapy Association defines our role, “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).”  If I said that to people they would probably smile at me kindly and turn around and say “Huh!?”  My goal is to help others get a better understanding of Occupational Therapy.

The first step is communicating the different ways the word “occupation” is viewed and defined. An “occupation” is not just a job or career, but it is anything a person does in their life that is meaningful and anything that is part of their daily routine. This includes jobs, leisure activities, self-care activities, social activities, educational activities, and even rest or sleep.

Now let’s look at the technical role of an Occupational Therapist. As an Occupational Therapist, I have an educational background and understanding of human anatomy, neuroscience, physics, kinesiology and all those other very medical subjects. However, I also have equal, if not more, education in human development, abnormal psychology, cognitive science, human behavior, and sociology. I study people’s physical and social environments and analyze daily routines and the disruptions to those routines.

There are health care professionals that focus on saving lives, extending lives, and/or ridding lives of disease or dysfunction.  As an occupational therapist, I am focused on a person’s ability to live life to its fullest despite illness, injury, or delays. I view these disabilities, delays or injuries in the context of “how is this impacting this person’s ability to participate in their daily routines including their jobs, leisure activities, daily interactions with others, and mundane tasks that most of us take for granted such as getting dressed or brushing our teeth.”

I also look at a person’s roles and how those roles have been impacted by the illness, injury, or delay. Most of us have many different roles we are juggling such as wife, mother, business owner, therapist, sister, daughter, friend, student; the list goes on and on. So what if a person got injured, became seriously ill, or suffered a mental illness? Or what about just changing roles or adding one on? Those things would impact the daily balance or routines, as well as our ability to function in our day to day lives. Most of us go through some of these changes all of the time: We get sick; we become parents; we get an injury; and then we adjust after some time. But what if we could not adjust? What if the injury, illness, or role change was too serious or too much? An occupational therapist would look at all of the physical, mental, emotional, and cognitive abilities to say:

  1. Can we improve their physical or motor skills, sensory processing, cognitive or emotional functioning in order for them to continue to participate in these routines?
  2. Can we change the daily routines or adjust the roles to meet the current needs of the client?
  3. Can we adapt the demands of activities to match the ability of the client?
  4. Can we improve or adapt the environment to improve function and therefore improve their ability to participate in daily routines?

With children, an occupational therapist will perform the same analysis, considering also that the children may not yet have developed the skills necessary to participate in activities expected for their age. This directly impacts their ability to play, make friends, and interact with family members in a meaningful way.  It can also impact the ability to learn to be independent with daily living skills such as brushing teeth or getting dressed. These delays also impact the family’s roles and occupations. Parents are spending more time teaching, more time negotiating, and spending more time going from appointment to appointment. They have added new roles to their lives too! They are not just a parent anymore but a therapist, an advocate, an educator, a medical manager, a scheduler, etc.

This brings up another important set of skills for the Occupational Therapist. We listen, we play, we teach, we support and we learn.

  • I listen to parents and families concerns, difficulties, frustrations, and their joys and satisfactions. I listen to them talk about their lives.
  • I play with children- I engage them in all their occupations such as participating in daily living tasks, academic skills, social interactions but I do most of it through playing with them. Play is how children learn about the world, build skills, and grow.
  • I teach children how to tie shoes, write letters and throw a ball. I teach parents how to support their child’s unique needs and abilities. I also teach educators how to help children function in their classrooms.
  • I support children, parents, families, teachers, and other professionals through advocacy and education.
  • And my favorite part of my job is learning. I learn through each interaction how to help each individual child and each unique family. I also learn everyday through these unique experiences more about myself and about my profession.

It is no small task but I love what I do and I think it is important for more people to understand the role of an Occupational Therapist in a person’s and child’s life.


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