What Does an Occupational Therapy Assistant Do?
An occupational therapy assistant improves patients' lives by helping them relearn how to perform routine daily living activities.
An occupational therapy assistant (OTA) works with an occupational therapist to provide treatment plans for patients recovering from an illness or traumatic injury. Their goal is to help the patient function independently. The therapist creates the plan, but the assistant is more likely to work with the patient directly.
Some OTAs work with adults, teaching them how to regain lost motor skills. Others work with children or patients of any age who have learning disabilities, behavioral problems, cerebral palsy, Down syndrome or other physical or mental disabilities. For example, an occupational therapy assistant could use play activities to teach a child coordination and socialization skills.
OTAs work with clients in their homes, at hospitals, nursing homes, rehabilitation centers, schools, community centers and private clinics.
Another name associated with this profession is occupational therapy aide, but there’s a difference. While occupational therapy assistants work directly with patients, occupational therapy aides typically perform support activities, including preparing equipment for sessions and doing administrative tasks.
Keep reading to learn more about this career, one of the most in-demand healthcare professions!
- Evaluate patient abilities
- Consult with occupational therapist to find the most effective activity or rehabilitation program
- Assist patients with therapeutic activities, such as stretches and other exercises
- Ensure patients are doing exercises correctly and encourage them to keep going
- Teach patients exercise and therapy programs to be done at home, including use of equipment
- Record patients’ progress
How To Become an Occupational Therapy Assistant: FAQs
What steps do I take to become an OTA?
Occupational therapy assistants must complete an associate degree from an accredited community college or technical school.
In addition to coursework in anatomy, medical terminology, physiology, psychology, biology and pediatric health, OTAs must complete at least 16 weeks on hands-on clinical work or fieldwork.
Level 1 Fieldwork introduces students to clinical experience and shadowing while they're taking academic courses. Level 2 Fieldwork is hands-on, structured experience that builds on all the academic learning and gives students a variety of real-life patient experiences. Depending on the program, this may be a full- or part-time internship.
Practice areas include pediatrics/youth focus, health and wellness, mental health, productive aging, rehabilitation/disability and work/industry focus.
Occupational therapy assistants must also pass the National Board for Certification of Occupational Therapists or NBCOT exam to earn Certified Occupational Therapy Assistant (COTA) status. Continuing education classes are required to maintain that certification.
There are also many additional certifications for OTAs, including programs that focus on patients with limited vision or eating and swallowing problems, such as Parkinson’s patients.
What other qualifications do I need?
All states regulate the practice of occupational therapy assistants and many require a license. (Regulations vary by state.)
In addition, many employers require assistants and aides to be trained in CPR.
Occupational therapy vs physical therapy: What's the difference?
Both practices focus on rehabilitation, but they differ in approach. An occupational therapy assistant helps patients regain the physical and mental strength to complete the daily tasks for independent living. A physical therapy assistant helps patients regain and improve body movement, typically after an accident.
How long does it take to become an OTA?
Most assistants earn an associate degree, which takes two years to complete.
For insight from someone whose been there, watch this video that explains what OTA school is like.
What is the job outlook for OTAs?
The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts 36% growth in employment of occupational therapy assistants. That growth is one of the reasons OTA is one of the top skilled trade jobs in-demand now. The need for occupational therapy is expected to grow as the population ages.
What skills and qualities would make someone a good fit for this job?
Successful occupational therapists tend to share these traits:
- Compassionate and enjoy helping people
- Adaptable and creative in coming up with patient plans, as no two patients will respond the same way to a specific therapy
- Excellent interpersonal skills, especially with the elderly or children
- Good dexterity
- Physical stamina to provide therapy while bending or stooping and to work on your feet for long stretches of time
If you’re a problem-solver, being a therapy assistant is a rewarding way to use your skills while helping others. You can earn a good salary and enjoy the benefits of a profession that allows you to become a specialist or to focus on helping a wide array of people. If this sounds like you, check out SkillPointe’s training opportunities!