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  • Writer's pictureNicole Cipriani

What The Hens is Occupational Therapy?

Updated: Mar 27, 2021

Not many people outside of the field can confidently describe our role to someone who has never heard of occupational therapy. Almost every single college or university OT or OTA program must have an assignment where students are asked to create an elevator pitch for the entire profession (No pressure, kids!). Val likens it to describing a unique food to someone. How do we help someone understand this beautiful, person-centered field if they haven’t experienced it? And, man alive, say it quickly before their eyeballs glaze over!

I will start out by saying that the word occupation in OT refers to how one occupies their time. Though this may including helping you find, keep, or do a job better, that is only one of the 9 occupations: work. If you want to see an eye roll, ask an OT if they help people find a job.

You can’t help thinking it. It’s a perfectly normal definition to assume. It’s just not the accurate one. And it’s not your fault. But we will still roll our eyes. Because we have so much to offer, and unless you or someone you love has received OT, you would never know (and even then, we get called PT's all the time because of the cognitive dissonance that we are not named intuitively). If you do find yourself having asked this, however, know that it is now mandatory for you to listen to their explanation. Because it’s probably pretty interesting.

People that do know what we are have probably only met one OT working in one specific field (for example, if you know me, you probably know that for the past 18 years, I have been working with kids with learning, social, and emotional differences, and I've probably used examples of some of their challenges with processing sensations, using their hands, or keeping themselves organized). If you knew me in the early aughts, you would know that an OT helps people with injuries or other health conditions conditions to improve their upper extremity function to return to previous valued activities. But basically OT practitioners work anywhere that people experience dysfunction and help them to meet their meaningful goals (Cipriani, 1997)! Through continuing education and experience, OT practitioners (both registered occupational therapists and OT assistants) each develop a unique set of evidence-based, data-driven tools to help clients (individuals, groups, or populations) achieve their personal set of goals. We work in medical, educational, and psychosocial milieus. Always with the goal of helping people meet their goals to do their lifejobs better. Always assessing the body and mind. Always taking the person’s occupations, lifestyle, context, and self into account.

In certain practice areas, there are only a few paths in to receiving OT. Many of us in pediatrics, for example, are very good at helping children and families understand and overcome sensory processing differences, for example, but frequently insurance will only pay for therapy if the child has a more objectively measurable challenge, say, a fine motor delay. That tends to work out well for children have challenges in more than one performance skill, but what about those who have adequate fine motor skills, but simply cannot function comfortably in busy multi-sensory environments? Or if the individual is an adult, way beyond the catch-all of a “delay in developmental milestones” diagnosis? Think of how much better this society would be if we were all able to access treatment that helped us be more comfortable in our bodies, so that we could do the things we need, want, or are expected to do on a daily basis!

Sensory Processing is only one of many specific areas that an OT might assess. We are a generalist profession at heart. There are OT’s working in hospital rehab departments at all levels of care, psychiatric facilities, schools, clinics, prisons, and community programs: each with very different rules for who qualifies and the type of therapy we can provide. Because payors don’t always seem to understand our scope and value either, it is not a generally profitable service, and those with the greatest need often lose out on access.

This sense of being unknown, compounded by barriers to service provision, makes a lot of us feel undervalued, always fighting for people to know who we are and what we can provide- but the knowledge this profession holds can be so helpful for everyday living (regardless of where you fall on standardized motor assessments)! The term “self-care” comes from occupational therapy! It has evolved to mean restful leisure occupations, but any OT can tell you that we've been referring to it for years as the more boring but still impactful basic activities of daily living (you know, brushing your teeth, feeding yourself, getting dressed). OT’s have been recommending the use of calming strategies such as weighted blankets, fidget tools, and tag-free clothing to certain clients since at least the 70’s. Imagine all the rest of the life-gems we’ve got squirreled away! OT has so much to offer, but it starts with the public first understanding our value. And it ends with insurance companies, federal and state programs, and other sponsors supporting our good work!

A swatch of stranded knitwork in gray with fair-isle borders.  White knit letters read "Occupy Yourself".

Stay tuned to Occupy Yourself to learn more about all sorts of ways to occupy yourself with greater intention to live the best life for you! In the meantime, if you have 50 minutes, Episode 1 might not be a bad place to start! Listen in while you’re cooking your dinner or doing laundry (instrumental activities of daily living), doing some knitting or coloring (the occupation of leisure), or lounging on the couch under your weighted blanket (the occupation of rest and sleep).

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