What Does an Occupational Therapist Assistant Do?

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OTA assisting elderly woman with coffee pot

Occupational therapy is one of the healthcare field’s best kept secrets. It’s a promising and flexible career that allows you to be creative, hands-on and innovative.

When a person becomes injured, diagnosed or disabled, an occupational therapy assistant helps the client work within their limitations to perform everyday tasks independently.

Unlike physical therapists, OTAs do not focus therapy on helping clients recover from their physical limitations. Instead, OTAs meet clients where they are to teach them ways to accomplish tasks while they are still recovering.

Here are a few things an OTA does:

  • Assist patients with therapy activities such as stretches and other exercises.
  • Implement play activities that increase coordination and socializing with children with developmental difficulties.
  • Motivate patients to finish activities and chores.
  • Show patients how to utilize specific equipment, such as gadgets that make eating simpler for those with Parkinson's disease.
  • Keep track of patients' progress, communicate with occupational therapists and do other administrative duties.

What do occupational assistants do day to day?

Recovering from an arm injury could take weeks or even months. If you love cooking, you may not want to wait that long to get back into the kitchen. That’s where an OTA comes in. Simple tasks like holding a knife, dicing vegetables or sautéing meals may be harder for you now. Fortunately, these are all things an OTA can teach you to do — whether you’re wearing a cast, struggling with range of motion or battling arthritis.

Your OTA could show you some unique ways to hold the knife or introduce you to cooking utensils that have adjustable handles. Your OTA would not focus on strengthening your arm (your physical therapist would handle that) but rather would concentrate on helping you find ways to continue doing what you love.

An OTA career is rewarding in that you can see the difference your work makes in every patient’s life. That’s what Karl, an occupational therapist in acute care, loves about being an OTA.

“There are so many great patient moments,” Karl says. “My favorite are always the ones that say, ‘you’ve changed my life.’”

OTA Practice Areas

Becky Anderson was completely unaware of the OTA profession and the flexibility it offers until she became a registered occupational therapist (OTR). Her next step was becoming the Academic Fieldwork Coordinator for St. Catherine University, where she learned even more about the day-to-day demands of being an OTA.

Becky is right. Occupational therapists can work with clients within the following six practice areas at any time:

  • Children and Youth: This segment includes children and young adults who have autism, learning challenges or physical limitations.
  • Productive Aging: This well-known segment includes elderly clients who may need your help maintaining their independence within the home, adapting to using a wheelchair or learning new ways to cook and clean.
  • Health and Wellness: Clients in this segment have chronic diseases or pain and rely on occupational therapy to stay mobile, maintain healthy activity levels and continue overall healthy lives.
  • Mental Health: OTAs work within a mental health environment to help these clients develop essential life skills and overcome mental health challenges.
  • Rehabilitation and Disability: You would help clients suffering from injuries or illness to help them regain independence.
  • Work and Industry: These clients need occupational therapy to return to work after an injury or illness. You might help them adapt to their work environment and tasks, or find ways help prevent injuries.

Working with various clients inspired and helped Becky pinpoint the practice area she was most passionate about. Becky discovered her love of working with people who suffer from neurological conditions.

“I was inspired by my first case with a patient that had poliomyelitis, which completely impaired his ability to move,” Becky says. “I was able to treat him and observe him gain movement and function to the point that he could return home. That started the love that I have for working with neurological conditions and specifically working with patients diagnosed with MS.”

Becky Anderson

How Do I Become an OTA?

Now that you can answer the question “what do occupational therapy assistants do,” it’s time to take the next step. If you think occupational therapy is a career you’d love, St. Catherine’s University is one of the nation’s leaders in OTA education. Combining online coursework with hands-on skills labs and fieldwork experience, this program is designed to have you earn an Associate of Applied Science (AAS) in as few as 16 months and on your way to working as an OTA sooner.

To learn more about the Online Occupational Therapy Assistant Program at St. Catherine’s University, contact our admissions team today.

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