Occupational therapy (OT) established itself in the 1970s as a health profession. It is an intervention that helps a person to re-gain their functioning and independence. This article will explain what OT is, what it usually involves and how OT can help people to be more self-sufficient.

Explanation of OT

A basic definition and explanation of OT is that it is a therapy that assists people with difficulties, conditions or disabilities to improve their ability to complete and engage in activities of daily living. Working the person to select personal goals, OT can help people in various aspects of living, from feeding, toileting or other basic self-care tasks, to preparing meals, driving and using public transport, and managing medications or money. OT can also develop an individual’s skills such as improving social skills, motor and physical coordination skills, cognitive tasks such as enhancing concentration and organisation, or assisting them to better engage with their local community. OTs help people of all ages to fulfil their goals and work with their families and carers to improve their functioning.

Referral for OT

A person is referred for OT because they are showing considerable decline or deficits in one or more areas of daily living activities. Usually, the person’s parent/career, family member or health professional makes the referral for OT intervention. While OT clients commonly do have a medical diagnosis or injury (or more than one), some clients who engage in OT do not have a diagnosed medical condition but have complications in their ability to perform the daily tasks that are meaningful or essential to them. For example, a typical referral for OT for children is to help improve their fine motor skills, particularly handwriting.

What OT involves

Once a referral has been made for an OT to work with a client, the OT meets the client (and usually their parents, carers or other significant person) and learns more about the reason for referral, medical and social history and other relevant information. Realistic goals for both he short- and/or long-term will then be determined for therapy, within the context of the client’s lifestyle and environment.
Depending on the referral reason, the OT may then perform standardised assessments to identify the person’s current functional capacity in the specific areas of focus. Common examples of assessments are a general functional assessment or sensory profile. The OT will often also utilise observation to evaluate and analyse the client’s behaviour, functional capacity within their social and environmental backgrounds.
OT interventions generally involves emotional, physical, environmental or cognitive strategies (and often a combination of these) to attempt to reduce the person’s difficulties. Examples of how OT treatments can help children include with specific issues:
– Developing routines for the child to improve organisation skills (e.g. getting ready for school independently)
– Using various fine motor manipulation exercises to enhance fine motor skills, or identifying particular pen or pencil grips that can improve handwriting
– Sensory modulation therapies to increase the child’s processing to help address behavioural problems
– Amending the physical environment (i.e. by adding equipment or making home modifications) to enhance safety and ability of the person to perform daily tasks, e.g. adding grab rails in the bathroom

Length of OT treatment

The continued need for OT depends on the client’s progress. As the client achieves their goals and elevates their skills, they may move on to form new therapy goals. Some clients with life-long conditions may need long-term interventions (with goals and focus areas constantly evolving as the child matures), while others may only need therapy in the short-term. The determination to cease or continue OT is made in collaboration between the therapist, client and their family or caregivers.