Top 10 Occupational Therapy Specialties

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Wondering how to become an occupational therapist assistant? After completing an OTA program and passing the certification exam, you can choose from many occupational therapy specialties, including brain injury, autism spectrum disorder. disability rehabilitation, aquatic therapy, children and youths, older adult and so many more.

OT helping patient with holding weights

Are you considering pursuing a healthcare-related career but need help determining which one is right for you? If you enjoy working with people and helping them overcome challenges, consider becoming an occupational therapy assistant (OTA). OTAs partner with occupational therapists (OT) to help clients overcome daily limitations due to injuries, illnesses or disabilities.

One of the perks of becoming an OTA is the opportunity to choose from a wide range of work settings and occupational therapy specialties. For example, you could work in community centers, homes or schools. How long does it take to become an occupational therapist assistant? What are the occupational therapist education requirements for assistants? We’ll dive into all that here and look at the top 10 occupational therapy specialties.

woman wearing scrubs greeting two elderly patients

Curious about what this career looks like? Check out this blog that explores a day in the life of an occupational therapist.

OTs and OTAs work within myriad occupational therapy specialties, assisting clients from all walks of life. As we discuss each practice area, remember that while some OTs and OTAs choose to specialize in specific practice areas, others prefer to work with clients across the practice areas — making no two days the same.

1. Children and Youth

There’s much to be excited about regarding occupational therapy’s many applications for 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, self-care and coordination issues.

Some of the interventions OTs and OTAs employ with children might surprise you. What appears to be basic play often has a particular 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
woman helping a child with a walker

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 comprised 11 percent of the U.S. population in 1985. By 2030, older adults are expected to make up 20 percent of the population. Many older adults struggle with the activities of daily living (ADLs), and OTAs can help them overcome these challenges.

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

Assistant occupational therapist education requirements for those who wish to work with older adults are generally the same as other OTA specialties. However, some employers may prefer hiring individuals with a Certified Aging in Place Specialist (CAPS) certification.

OTA helping patient stand up from couch

What does an occupational therapy assistant do, exactly? Read all about it here.

3. Health and Wellness

It’s no secret the United States falls short when it comes to eating healthy and getting enough exercise. At the same time 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 lifestyle choices that lead to these diseases.

Examples include:

  • Helping chronic pain sufferers cope with and treat pain without the use of opioids
  • Teaching families living in food deserts about healthy eating through involvement in a community garden
  • Treating eating disorders
  • Helping people with diabetes better manage their disease
student sitting down with elderly woman

If you aspire to pursue this OTA specialty, consider becoming a Certified Health Coach (CHC). You’ll need to complete a self-study course and pass an exam.

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 one in 20 experiencing severe mental illnesses. 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 essential tool in combating mental health issues.

Examples include:

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

To demonstrate your ability to help those affected by psychiatric issues, consider earning the Certified Psychiatric Rehabilitation Practitioner credential (CPRP).

5. Rehabilitation and Disability

At the heart of occupational therapy is treating and rehabilitating injuries and disabilities. Currently, about one in four American adults is 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 essential role in recovering from injuries. In these instances, OTs and OTAs can help independently and as part of multi-disciplinary care teams that may include speech pathologists, physical therapists, primary care physicians, and more.

OTA using stretching bands with patient

Examples include:

  • Working with a stroke survivor to regain the ability to bathe and dress themselves
  • 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

The assistant occupational therapist education requirements in this specialty can vary by employer. However, consider pursuing the Seating and Mobility Specialist (SMS) Certification.

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 an 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 syndrome

You might want to earn a Certified Industrial Ergonomic Evaluator (CIEE) certification or the Certified Industrial Rehab Specialist (CIRS) credential to demonstrate your credentials in this area.

student assisting man with pill containers

7. Aquatic Therapeutic Exercise

Clients of all ages can benefit from aquatic therapeutic exercise. It can help improve functioning for those with orthopedic, neurological or sensory issues and a range of physical limitations. Aquatic therapy can be particularly beneficial because it offers a gentler way to improve mobility, strength and range of motion. The water’s buoyancy mitigates gravity’s effect, and clients are often more relaxed in the water.

Examples include:

  • Helping elderly patients with arthritis build strength and flexibility
  • Decreasing pain and increasing blood circulation in patients with fibromyalgia and other types of chronic pain
  • Providing strong sensory stimulation to children on the autism spectrum

Consider pursuing the ATRI Aquatic Therapeutic Exercise Certification credential if you wish to try these occupational therapy specialties.

8. Assistive Technology

Some clients can benefit from using assistive technologies to help them with ADLs. Although assistive technology sounds futuristic, it’s been around for a long time—and new technologies continue to be developed constantly. These devices range from wheelchairs to hearing aids, prosthetic limbs, and augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) devices.

One of the neat things about choosing to work within this specialty is the wide range of clients you may work with. People with all sorts of limitations and disabilities can benefit from certain assistive technologies.

Examples include:

  • Teaching a nonverbal child on the autism spectrum to use an AAC device to communicate
  • Helping a client who has experienced limb loss learn to use a wheelchair or a prosthetic limb
  • Guiding clients with low vision with the use of electronic magnifiers, screen readers or voice-activated assistants
OT student helping older woman with walker

One option for demonstrating your expertise in this specialty area is to earn the Assistive Technology Professional (ATP) Certification.

9. Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)

Children and adults who are on the autism spectrum are all unique; their challenges vary considerably in type and severity. However, many people with ASD struggle with issues such as communication, self-care, sensory processing, fine motor skills and social skills. Occupational therapy professionals often work with children and adults with ASD to help them learn how to become more independent.

Examples include:

  • Working to develop a child’s fine motor skills so they can grip a pencil, use scissors and perform other tasks
  • Guiding people with ASD in regulating their sensory input so as not to become overwhelmed by their environment
  • Teaching clients to use AAC devices to supplement their communication efforts and as a pathway toward becoming more verbal

Although it’s not an entry-level certification, you may become eligible to pursue the Certified Autism Specialist (CAS) credential after gaining experience working with clients on the spectrum.

10. Brain Injury

A traumatic brain injury (TBI) or stroke has the potential to change a person’s life forever, affecting areas like cognition, socioemotional wellness, motor function, visual perceptions and more. OTs and OTAs often work with TBI patients as part of their essential care team, which may also include physical therapists and neurologists. As an OTA, you could help brain injury patients recover greater functioning and enjoy a more independent life.

Examples include:

  • Guiding clients in using the visual scanning technique so they can walk more safely despite visual perception impairments
  • Improving muscle strength, tone and range of motion so clients can stand and walk more easily, as well as decrease their unwanted involuntary movements
  • Assisting with community integration, empowering clients to begin using various resources in the community, such as supermarkets or sports venues

After gaining experience working with clients with brain injuries, consider highlighting your skills by becoming an official Certified Brain Injury Specialist (CBIS).

How Long Does It Take to Become an Occupational Therapist Assistant?

three OT students posing and smiling in class

OTA programs can vary in length, but they are typically about two years. At St. Kate’s, our Online OTA Program can be completed in as few as 16 months (depending on your chosen curriculum). If you need to complete some prerequisites, starting the program will take a little longer. In addition, after graduating, you’ll need to pass the NBCOT exam (National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy) to obtain certification as an OTA.

How to Become an Occupational Therapist Assistant at St. Catherine University

We want to help you make the right career decision. Occupational therapy is an excellent choice for people who wish to pursue a meaningful career that does not put them into a box.

With myriad occupational therapy specialties to pursue, you’re sure to find a career focus that fits your interests and lifestyle. Reach out to our admissions advisors today to learn more about how to become an occupational therapist assistant in as few as 16 months with St. Kate’s Online OTA Program.

outside shot of st. kate campus

The Ultimate Guide to Occupational Therapy and OTA

Get answers to your questions about the field, about the OTA career path, and about St. Catherine University’s Online OTA program.

book with cover title: Occupational Therapy Assistant Explained