What is Occupational Therapy?

I spend a lot of time explaining what I do as an occupational therapist — a lot.  It is understandable, given that our title is a bit vague and confusing in pediatrics.  Occupational therapy started with the philosophy that people need to engage in meaningful occupations to be healthy.  However, an occupation is not a 9-5 job.  An “occupation” is anything the occupies a person’s time that is meaningful.

Child's handsA famous quote in this field is by Mary Reilly, “Man, through the use of his hands, as they are energized by mind and will, can influence the state of his own health.”

Here is an excellent video made by the UBC MOT class of 2013 that highlights the impact of occupational therapists across the life span.

So, as a pediatric occupational therapist I help child to be successful at childhood occupations.  What occupies a child’s time?  Anything children find meaningful: playing, learning, chores, and friendships…  the list is endless.  For more examples, see my post about the occupations of childhood.

A lot of my job looks like I am just playing.  However, I am doing so much more than playing.  I am constantly analyzing, adapting, modifying, and teaching.  Occupational therapists are trained to look at the big picture first- what do you need or want to do to have a meaningful life (we call this occupational performance and participation)?  We then look at how factors about a person (how the mind and body function) interact with factors about the environment (physical, cultural, and social environments).  We use skilled analysis and interventions to create change in either a person’s capabilities (e.g., exercise to get stronger), a person’s environment (e.g., build a ramp into a house), or a person’s occupations (e.g., learning a new hobby after an injury).

For example, if a preschool child isn’t able to participate in circle time at school due to an attention disorder, an OT might do any or all of the following:

  • Work on teaching the child increased attention and self-regulation skills (change the person)OT- person, environment, occupation diagram
  • Create a behavioral reward system to increase child’s motivation to comply (change the person)
  • Move to a seat closer to the teacher and provide a carpet square for boundaries (change the environment)
  • Educate the teacher on ways to increase engagement with children with ADHD (change the environment)
  • Have the child work 1:1 with the para on listening abilities until the child has enough skills to participate (change the occupation)

We differ from most of the medical professions because we are focused on quality of life and participation in meaningful occupations, rather then illnesses and diagnoses.  We are focused on what you can do and what you want to do.  The president of the American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA), Ginny Stoffel stated, “Occupational therapy practitioners will ask ‘what matters to you’ not, ‘what’s the matter with you?'”

The AOTA has several publications with great information: