In honor of April being Occupational Therapy Month, we’re answering the question: “What does an Occupational Therapy Assistant do at work?”
Occupational therapy is a diverse field, catering to a wide range of practice areas. Not surprisingly, finding the right treatment can require thinking outside the box. It can also mean stepping outside the clinical setting. As a result, pioneering OTs and OTAs are constantly devising new and exciting occupational therapy interventions.
In this blog, we’ll talk about what it is that OTAs do, as well as highlight some of the latest treatments (called “interventions” in the field of occupational therapy).
What Does an Occupational Therapy Assistant Do at Work?
Occupational therapy assistants support occupational therapists in helping people with disabilities, illnesses and injuries to perform activities of daily living (ADLs) — the everyday tasks one must be able to perform for independence. Obviously, some patients, such as those with Alzheimer’s disease, may never be able to live independently, but can nonetheless benefit from occupational therapy.
Key to understanding the relationship between OTs and OTAs is the word “support.” OTs evaluate their clients’ conditions and prescribe treatment plans to be carried out by OTAs. However, this can be a little misleading. While occupational therapists determine treatment plans, occupational therapy assistants have a high degree of latitude to get creative with treatments. Every client is different, and you will no doubt need to make adjustments to better accommodate and tailor a prescribed intervention.
Due to the many needs served by occupational therapy, you can find OTAs in a number of settings, including hospitals, rehab centers, schools, nursing homes, retirement communities and more. It’s also this demand for services that makes occupational therapy one of the fastest growing areas in healthcare — and why OTA was named the best healthcare support role for the second year in a row.
One of the best things about being an OTA is that every day is different, bringing with it new challenges and opportunities. On any given day, you might do any of the following (and more):
- Work with a child who, while proficient with touchscreen devices, lacks the muscle strength and coordination to use a pen or pencil.
- Supervise an adult with a back injury as he or she works through therapeutic exercises.
- Help a stroke survivor to relearn impacted skills such as buttoning a shirt, tying shoes, etc.
- Visit an elderly client’s home and recommend modifications that will allow him or her to remain at home.
- Advise family members and caregivers about changes in a dementia patient’s personality.
- Teach an individual with a developmental disability how to eat and dress on his or her own.
- Work with someone with Parkinson’s disease to help him or her strengthen the neck muscles needed to swallow food and communicate.
Because no two clients are the same, OTs and OTAs often find themselves getting creative to help make a difference, which brings us to some of the most intriguing occupational therapy treatments.
5 Interesting, Popular or Downright “Out There” Occupational Therapy Interventions
Given the growing demand for occupational therapy and the breakneck pace with which new therapy techniques are being developed, it’s tempting to think that we’ve entered into a golden age of occupational therapy. Whether that’s true, there seems to be no shortage of new and interesting occupational therapy interventions.
Here are five interesting occupational therapy interventions you may come across.
Upon reading “animal-assisted therapy,” your mind probably went straight to everyone’s favorite furry friend, the dog. It’s not surprising — dogs are the most common therapy and service animals, and more U.S. households have dogs than any other pet.
Why? Dogs are relatively easy to train, vary in size and have a knack for detecting slight changes in the behavior of their human counterparts. However, dogs aren’t the only stars of animal therapy — the list of therapy animals includes horses, cats, rabbits, hamsters, guinea pigs, birds and even reptiles.
In the world of occupational therapy, animals have been found to provide comfort and grounding to people with dementia and other cognitive issues, as well as provide many other benefits. Of note, autism researchers are seeing great promise in animal-assisted occupational therapy interventions for children on the autism spectrum, who may struggle to connect with people.
Interested in reading more about animal-assisted therapy? In a past blog, we highlighted the work of Mona, an occupational therapist who started Creative Therapy Care — Mona’s Ark, a non-profit organization specializing in therapies involving animals.
While animal-assisted therapy has been shown to get people who otherwise would not talk to do so, it’s not the only therapy that’s been successful in getting people talking…
While there is no cure for dementia or Alzheimer’s just yet (though researchers are hard at work), memory therapy has been shown to at least temporarily improve brain functioning and increase independence.
How does it work? Quite literally, this form of therapy uses sights and sounds to evoke memories of earlier times in one’s life. For example, some nursing homes, like one in Dresden, Germany, are experimenting with memory rooms. The center created a mock store designed to look like one of the state-controlled stores found throughout East Germany in the 60s and 70s, complete with shelves of Soviet-era products. If it sounds novel, the results are anything but. As if transported to a different world, it proved enough to get some of the center’s dementia patients moving around and talking in a way they hadn’t in years, even if temporarily.
Socially Assistive Robot Therapy
A lot of OT interventions are intended to teach new skills and get people talking. One of the more experimental interventions involves the use of socially assistive robots to help people be less lonely; to teach social behaviors and rehab exercises; and to foster cognitive, emotional and social growth. As with the previous therapies highlighted here, children with autism spectrum disorders and other social and cognitive issues may benefit the most, though robots have also been employed to work with dementia patients.
The theory goes that a child who struggles to connect with other humans or learn behaviors may respond better to a robot asking him or her to imitate different actions. Additionally, robots can be personalized to specific clients’ needs and even model social interaction dynamics. In fact, researchers are now looking at ways robots can step in and help parents by providing health coaching and other support to children.
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It’s long been known that music has the power to stimulate different regions of the brain. From increasing concentration and decreasing pain to initiating movement and fostering social interaction, music boasts many applications in occupational therapy — both on its own and combined with other interventions. It’s also known that learning and playing an instrument can prove a fun way to enhance motor skills, build social confidence, regulate emotional responses to situations and stressors, and more.
In Alaska, the military is working with the Department of Veterans Affairs and the National Endowment of the Arts to pair occupational therapy and musical therapy to help treat memory loss and improve memory loss in veterans with traumatic injuries and post-traumatic stress disorder. This includes learning to play instruments, singing, writing lyrics and drumming.
Music therapy can also be found in nursing homes, schools and many other places where occupational therapy is provided. It’s even being used to help stroke survivors improve movement and coordination.
By now, it’s pretty obvious that a lot of occupational therapy interventions hardly seem like therapy at all. A lot of them sound, well, fun — and that’s kind of the point. Occupational therapy interventions are intended to be engaging and empowering, so it’s no surprise art therapy is another popular and creative intervention.
OTs and OTAs routinely pair more traditional occupational therapy methods with art therapy, such as painting and making crafts, to teach and rehabilitate motor skills. Whether assisting children with developmental disabilities or helping stroke survivors who are struggling to relearn basic skills, such as button a shirt or holding a paintbrush, art therapy has widespread applications in the OT field. Artistic expression can also be helpful in getting people with cognitive disabilities like autism and dementia out of their shells.
In addition to these five interesting occupational therapy interventions, honorable mention goes to dance therapy, virtual reality and, believe it or not, ski therapy, proving that with occupational therapy, you’re only limited by your own imagination. Additionally, occupational therapy is often paired with other services, such as speech therapy and physical therapy, depending on the needs of the client.
Earn Your OTA Degree from St. Catherine University in as Few as 16 Months
Interested in finding out how you can pursue an exciting career as an occupational therapy assistant? With three start dates each year and spots available now, you can start working toward becoming an OTA sooner than you might think. Additionally, unlike many OTA programs, we take care of finding fieldwork opportunities for our students. If you have somewhere in mind that you’d like to gain fieldwork experience, talk to your advisor during enrollment. We may be able to arrange for you to do fieldwork there if it meets our requirements. Give us a call at 877.223.2677 or request that an admissions counselor reach out to you to learn more about our Online OTA program.