What is Occupational Therapy?

Taryn Erickson M.S., OTR/L
Taryn Erickson M.S., OTR/L

LKS & Associates
Occupational Therapist

Attempting to explain the profession and scope of occupational therapy (OT) to those unfamiliar has remained an ongoing challenge since attending my OT master’s program. In graduate school, we learned what to say to best build understanding and highlight the profession’s significance. My professors would say, “Something short and sweet, like an elevator speech.” 

That “elevator speech” needed to explain the scope of occupational therapy, describe  the various settings, age populations, disabilities, and treatment interventions, while also remaining “short and sweet.” It seems easy, right?

The script went something like this, “We are healthcare practitioners who support function, engagement, and independence in individuals across the lifespan. We work with many age groups and in many settings like hospitals, clinics, and schools. An ‘occupation’ is any meaningful activity.” However, back then, my answer always seemed to leave things unclear, and without more time to explain, that elevator ride was too short. To this day, explaining what exactly an OT does is no easy feat. 

What Exactly is Occupational Therapy?

It’s no surprise this question remains so frequent; I understand the ambiguity. Even the name “occupational therapy” is vague. Speech therapy is a specialized treatment for communication and speech disorders. Physical therapy is a specialized treatment for physical impairment and movement disorders. Occupational therapy is a specialized treatment that supports one’s engagement in meaningful occupations. Clear? Yeah, I didn’t think so.

According to Wikipedia, “Occupational therapy is the use of assessment and intervention to develop, recover, or maintain the meaningful activities or occupations of individuals, groups, or communities. It is an allied health profession performed by occupational therapists and occupational therapy assistants.” 

Individuals, groups, and populations engage in various life activities called occupations. The eight areas of occupation are: 

  • Activities of daily living or “ADLs,” (e.g.,self-care tasks like feeding oneself, dressing, and grooming tasks)
  • Instrumental activities of daily living or “IADLs” (e.g., household chores, errands, pet care, driving, etc.) 
  • Rest and sleep 
  • Education
  • Work
  • Play*
  • Leisure
  • Social participation*

Occupational therapists support participation in tasks falling under any of the above areas of occupation, quite a broad scope of practice, as you can see! 

Therefore, occupational therapists are experts in task analysis— a key process that involves observing a client perform a task, breaking down the task into components, and identifying underlying skill deficits. 

We use task analysis to determine why a client has difficulty in a given task and provide interventions to address the specific areas impacting the client’s performance. Our goal is to help our clients better participate and succeed in their meaningful occupations. The American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA) states occupational therapists ask, “What matters to you?” not, “What’s the matter with you?”

So What Are a Child’s Occupations? 

Children’s most common and meaningful occupations involve play, school, self-care, and social interaction. When a child has difficulty engaging in any activities related to the eight areas of occupation, my job is to figure out why and address the deficit(s) impacting the child’s ability to participate.

Why is OT Different at LKS & Associates?

LKS & Associates has developed a unique OT program that works in conjunction with the child’s speech therapist. 

After spending years working at a multi-disciplinary clinic, I understand the importance of frequent collaboration with my client’s other therapists. Time and time again, I found that looking at a child holistically and through multiple lenses consistently led to more significant progress. After all, two or three brains are better than one! 

Since transitioning to LKS and Associates, I have found myself thinking more in-depth about overall speech development and what makes it difficult for each child. 

As an occupational therapist, I cannot help but analyze the connections between language development and underlying skill deficits. Is it the child’s attention, sensory processing skills, or self-regulating ability impacting their speech and language? If the child has problems completing activities, can they use expressive language to ask for help? Does a child with a quiet voice have limited breath control and core strength? Does the child’s ability to focus and attend to visual information affect their ability to lip-read and imitate speech? Well, my job is to help figure it out! 

Indeed, through collaboration and active communication with the child’s speech therapist, we can better understand our clients’ needs and holistically support their progress.

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