Career Options

You’ll Never Get Bored with These 6 Occupational Therapy Specialties

Variety is the spice of life, and it’s also one of the things that makes occupational therapy a great career. We go over six different occupational therapy specialties and what they entail, ranging from working with children to the elderly in places such as workplaces and rehabilitation centers.

OT helping elderly patient

Picking a career can be a major source of anxiety. Not only do you want one that offers room for professional growth. You also want to know that there are different paths you can take should you want to try something new … because let’s face it, not everyone wants to do the same thing day in and day out. Thankfully there is a variety of occupational therapy specialties to choose from. Because this career is inherently dynamic, becoming an OTA is a great choice. Add growing demand nationwide, and it’s not hard to see why so many people love having a career in occupational therapy.

In the occupational therapy field, the term “occupation” refers to the activities of daily living (ADLs) that people want and need to do to lead healthy, full lives. In this sense, an occupation could be any number of tasks, big or small — making dinner, walking the dog, writing, or going to school or work, just to name a few.

OTs and OTAs work together to help clients overcome injuries, illnesses, or disabilities so that they can do the ADLs that are important to them, making this not only an incredibly fulfilling field to work in but also one with a lot of variety. Being in occupational therapy, you can work with clients at every stage of life and in various settings, including:

  • Community centers
  • Daycares
  • Homes
  • Hospitals
  • Nursing homes
  • Outpatient provider offices
  • Rehabilitation centers
  • Schools or workplaces

“I could go pretty much in any direction,” says Tiffany, a graduate of St. Catherine University’s Online OTA program, on why she chose to pursue occupational therapy. “There’s a lot of different opportunities out there to where, if I get bored or maybe want to try something new, I can use my OTA credential in a different spot but still do my same job.”

We’ll be exploring the six occupational therapy practice areas, as well as some of the places you can find work as an occupational therapy assistant (OTA).

woman sitting down with man

Confused about the difference between occupational and physical therapy? You are not alone. We explain the differences and similarities between these growing fields.

The Six Occupational Therapy Practice Areas Explained

OTs and OTAs deal in six primary practice areas, assisting clients in all walks of life. As we discuss each practice area, keep in mind that while some OTs and OTAs choose to specialize in certain practice areas, others prefer to work with clients across the practice areas — making no two days the same.

1. Children and Youth

There’s a lot to be excited about when it comes to occupational therapy’s many applications related to children and youth. In addition to treating developmental disorders such as autism and Down syndrome, occupational therapy can help address a wide range of issues, like bullying, childhood obesity and coordination issues.

Some of the interventions OTs and OTAs employ with children might surprise you. Often, what appears to be basic play has a very specific intent, such as strength training, muscle development or refining hand-eye coordination.

Examples include:

  • Providing early intervention therapies to a non-verbal child
  • Helping a child who lacks the muscle coordination to hold a pencil learn to write
  • Using equine-assisted therapy to help a child on the autism spectrum overcome social anxiety
Adult watching children learn and play on tablet outdoors

2. Productive Aging

People are living longer today than in the not-so-distant past, and while there’s no denying this is a good thing, the sharp increase in life expectancy presents many new challenges for the healthcare field. According to the Institute on Aging, older adults made up 11 percent of the U.S. population in 1985. By 2030, older adults are expected to make up 20 percent of the population. What’s more, the institute says that in 2009, a quarter of Medicare recipients 65 or older had trouble with an ADL. All of this means that there will be a growing demand for occupational therapy professionals working in gerontology.

Examples include:

  • Making home modifications aimed at preventing falls so seniors can remain at home longer
  • Identifying and educating clients on new ways of doing everyday tasks, such as putting on shoes
  • Helping loved ones cope with Alzheimer’s and dementia
  • Assisting community centers in providing age-appropriate activities and accommodations

3. Health and Wellness

It’s no secret that when it comes to eating healthy and getting enough exercise, the United States falls short of many other developed countries, and the statistics are downright shocking. At the same time that obesity and other chronic diseases have become major health crises, America’s opioid addiction epidemic is regularly front and center in the news. Occupational therapy professionals have a unique opportunity to help mitigate some of these issues by addressing the root causes of some of the lifestyle choices that lead to these diseases.

Examples include:

  • Helping chronic pain sufferers cope with and treat pain without the use of opioids
  • Teaching low-income families living in food deserts about healthy eating through involvement in a community garden
  • Treating eating disorders
  • Helping diabetics better manage their disease

4. Mental Health

The statistics on mental health in the United States are alarming. In any given year, about one in five American adults experience a mental illness, with nearly a quarter experiencing a serious mental illness. Among children, the trends are particularly alarming. Between 2009 and 2017, depression rates among teenagers 14 to 17 have increased by more than 60%. Suicide, homelessness, poor academic performance, isolation and job loss are just some of the results of untreated mental health issues. Traditionally, many of these issues have been handled by psychiatry and psychology. However, occupational therapy is emerging as an important tool in combating mental health issues.

Examples include:

  • Teaching war veterans strategies for coping with post-traumatic stress disorder
  • Helping teens find healthy outlets for anxiety
  • Developing community programs to reduce the stigma of mental health issues

5. Rehabilitation and Disability

At the heart of occupational therapy is the treatment and rehabilitation of injuries and disabilities. Currently, about 61 million Americans are affected by a disability, of which the CDC defines six primary disability types: mobility, cognition, hearing, vision, independent living and self-care. In addition to helping with long-term disabilities, occupational therapy can also play an important role in recovering from injuries. In all of these instances, OT and OTAs can help, both on their own and as part of multi-disciplinary care teams that may include speech pathologists, physical therapists, primary care physicians and more.

Women playing instruments on couch

Examples include:

  • Working with a stroke survivor to regain the ability to walk
  • Helping the victim of a car accident adapt to life as an amputee
  • Assessing whether someone with Parkinson’s disease needs to modify the way they eat and drink to avoid the risk of choking

6. Work and Industry

For many Americans, sitting in front of a computer for eight hours a day has become a way of life, and there are a host of associated health issues that stem from sitting too much, including increased blood pressure, cancer risk, back pain and poor posture.

However, these findings do not imply that standing all day is without adverse effects. For those who spend their entire workday on their feet, standing too much comes with its own set of issues, ranging from muscle fatigue and circulation problems to back pain. Not to mention occupations that require intense physical labor or are particularly risky in terms of potential injury. Occupational therapy can be a great way to help employees in all different work environments treat and avoid injuries so they can continue to work in fulfilling jobs.

Examples include:

  • Helping employers create work environments that are more conducive to their employees’ health and work performance
  • Working with a middle-aged employee with back issues to correct posture issues, thereby avoiding further injury
  • Recommending the use of an ergonomic keyboard and chair for someone with carpal tunnel
OTA with child on exercise ball - 5 reasons occupational therapy is a good career

One of the major perks of occupational therapy is the variety you can have throughout your career. We highlight five other reasons why occupational therapy is a great career choice.

Want to Work in Occupational Therapy?

We want to help you make the right career decision. Occupational therapy is a great choice for people who want to pursue a meaningful career that does not put them into a box. With a variety of occupational therapy specialties to pursue, you will always be able to change things up if it starts getting too monotonous. Give us a call today to learn more about how you can become an occupational therapy assistant in as few as 16 months with St. Kate’s Online OTA program.

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*Lab Travel will be required for 6 weekends throughout the course of one year, you are not required to reside in this state.

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