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Very often, people know nothing about the field of Occupational Therapy until something happens to them. Whether it’s a work injury, a medical emergency, or even a natural part of the aging process, when people need to relearn skills and gain practice using their bodies in different ways to perform day-to-day tasks, they will typically seek out someone in Occupational Therapy to help them get things back on track. In this overview, we will take a look at the history of the field, the schooling and licensure needed to become an Occupational Therapy Assistant, and what you can expect from the work environment if you choose to enter this incredibly meaningful and helpful field.

A little history on the field of Occupational Therapy 

Near the end of the 19th century, the concept of work therapy was starting to take hold in the United States. With the advent of “Compassionate Care,” it was discovered that providing people therapeutic assistance to tackle day-to-day tasks after a life-changing incident produced great outcomes. Not only did it help them feel like they still had a purpose, but also gave them confidence that they could relearn to do these things in different ways. 

During both World Wars, Occupational Therapy continued to grow, as soldiers came home missing limbs, suffering from mental health traumas, and with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder stopping them from living their lives in the same way they had before their deployment. 

Fast forward to today, and Occupational Therapy is now a standard of care for people dealing with many other conditions including: cerebral palsy, down syndrome, learning disabilities, sensory processing issues, autism, traumatic brain injury, work-related injuries, Parkinson’s disease, arthritis, Alzheimer’s and dementia, Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), cancer, depression, and schizophrenia – the list goes on and on. People with any condition that impacts their ability to perform daily tasks can benefit from some level of occupational therapy.

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The field of Occupational Therapy is incredibly broad, but typically covers six practice areas:

  1. Children/Youth
  2. Aging
  3. Health/Wellness
  4. Mental Health
  5. Rehabilitation/Disability
  6. Work/Industry

The reasons people need an Occupational Therapy Assistant will vary depending on their circumstances. In general, any of these conditions can make it difficult for people to do everyday tasks or be as active and as independent as they used to be. Individuals may also be limited by poverty and other cultural differences, or even just the natural aging process. What works for one person won’t work for another, and so the Occupational Therapy Assistant will need to create a unique plan for each case, depending on the severity of the injury and the outcomes desired. 

With the prevalence of conditions like obesity, diabetes, and developmental disabilities in children increasing as quickly as it is, the demand for Occupational Therapy Assistants who can work with children is increasing just as quickly.  

Another very common condition that develops in a need for Occupational Therapy is stroke. According to the CDC, in the United States alone, someone has a stroke every 40 seconds. If caught and treated early, there is a great recovery rate, but that recovery is likely accelerated by having great care from an Occupational Therapy Assistant. 

Statistics and Career Trajectory for Occupational Therapy Assistants 

The average career path for people going into Occupational Therapy might look like this: 

  1. Start as an Occupational Therapy Aide while working on  your Associate’s Degree.
  2. Work as an Occupational Therapy Assistant while you continue schooling to eventually become an Occupational Therapist.

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, there is significant growth expected in the entire field over the next 10 years, putting assistants in very high demand. The current average salary for an Occupational Therapy Assistant is about $60K per year and the degree can be obtained in about 16-24 months. 

Obviously, the pay as an entry-level aide will start at less than that, but can be a great way to gain experience in a clinic and a good feel for the world of Occupational Therapy as you continue your progress further into the field. 

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Expected Schooling and Work Environment for Occupational Therapy Assistants 

When it comes to what is the necessary education and accreditation to becoming an Occupational Therapy Assistant, each state has its own rules around licensing and certification. 

Typically, you will need a two-year Associate of Applied Science (A.A.S.) through an accredited program and after that, licensure.

Some of the skills needed to be a great Occupational Therapy Assistant, and of which you will learn over the course of your education are: 

  1. Practice using evidence-based interventions.
  2. Demonstrating professional attributes, ethical standards, and the values of those in the profession.
  3. Delivering competent services by using reflection, strengths, and client-centered and occupation based interventions.
  4. Critical and creative thinking.
  5. Collaborating professionally, both internally and with clients.
  6. Working with people from very diverse backgrounds, in a variety of practice settings, and serving a broad community.

The typical A.A.S. coursework also includes: Medical Terminology, Anatomy, Psychology, Physical Health, and Community Practice and Foundations. 

The A.A.S. in Occupational Therapy also typically requires some type of apprentice fieldwork before graduation. 

Prior to gaining this experience working in the field, you would need to:

  • Complete a health questionnaire
  • Sign a Hepatitis B release form
  • Receive a Mantoux test (a positive result requires a chest x-ray)
  • Complete a background check
  • Secure a current CPR for the healthcare worker card.

Once graduated and licensed in the state they will be working in, practitioners will typically work with people of all ages. You may work with individuals in their homes, community centers, work settings, day treatment centers, rehabilitation hospitals, skilled nursing facilities and/or continuing care communities. Most Assistants will work directly in their advising therapist’s office.

Schedules can be super flexible, depending on client needs, and can include nights and weekends, if the clinic or practice you are working in offers those options to their patients.

As you can see, the field of Occupational Therapy is growing rapidly, and also allows for incredible flexibility in the types of working environments and the types of patients you will work with and help through your services. It is meaningful work that increases the confidence and life-quality of the people you will encounter.  

Through this overview, we have covered just some of the basics of becoming an Occupational Therapy Assistant, but if you are looking for an even more in-depth learning session, there are some great lessons and tutorials available to help you determine if Occupational Therapy is the right field for you!

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