Occupational therapists (OTs) and occupational therapist assistants and aides help emotionally, physically or mentally challenged people lead independent lives by helping them learn how to perform everyday tasks. Occupational therapists may work with specific populations, such as a particular age group, those with mental disabilities or those with physical disabilities due to injury or disease.
An occupational therapist's focus depends on the particular client or the therapist's specialization. For example, an occupational therapist working with an elderly patient might assess driving ability or home safety hazards. A therapist working with a disabled child might help the child with academic and social participation in school.
Occupational Therapy Requirements: Prerequisites
If you're thinking about occupational therapy as a career, it's a good idea to take high school science and social science classes, such as psychology, health and biology. Because a college education is necessary for occupational therapists, it's also a good idea to take the SAT or the ACT, depending on what your colleges of interest accept. You should also consider volunteering at nursing care facilities, occupational or physical therapists' offices or other related healthcare environments.
Occupational Therapy Requirements: Degrees and Coursework
If you're interested in working in occupational therapy but want less career training, consider becoming an occupational therapist assistant or aide. Occupational therapist assistants help patients with exercises and everyday activities and chart their progress. Becoming an occupational therapist assistant requires earning an associate degree through a program accredited by the Accreditation Council for Occupational Therapy Education (ACOTE), which typically means about two years of undergraduate education. In addition to at least 16 weeks of supervised clinical work, coursework often includes:
- Introduction to healthcare
- Basic medical terminology
- Mental health
- Adult physical disabilities
To become an occupational therapist assistant, you'll also need to take a national certifying exam. Once certified, most occupational therapist assistants must maintain their license by taking continuing education courses.
Occupational therapist aides, on the other hand, typically get on-the-job training and perform clerical tasks, including preparing materials for therapy sessions and scheduling appointments.
Occupational therapist aide applicants are required to have a high school diploma and, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), are encouraged to volunteer at a healthcare facility as doing so demonstrates dedication to potential employers.
To be an occupational therapist, you'll need to earn a master's degree through a program approved by the ACOTE. This is the minimum educational requirement in most states. Coursework in a master's degree program usually includes physical, biological and behavioral sciences as well as courses on occupational therapy theory and practice.
Some universities offer combined bachelor's and master's degree programs that allow college students to graduate in five years with a master's degree in occupational therapy. The BLS reports that a growing number of schools are offering part-time and weekend occupational therapy programs. While it is possible to complete occupational therapy requirements via some distance education, it is not possible to earn a degree in occupational therapy completely online because all accredited programs require at least 24 weeks of supervised fieldwork.
Occupational Therapy Requirements: Licensure
Occupational therapists must be licensed in all states. In most states, candidates must pass the National Board for Certifying Occupational Therapy exam to receive the title Occupational Therapist Registered (OTR). Some states have their own licensing exam. Occupational therapist assistants must be licensed, registered or certified in most states. Other requirements vary by state.
Occupational Therapy Requirements: Specializations
The American Occupational Therapy Association, Inc. identifies six broad areas of practice for occupational therapists:
- Children and Youth
- Health and Wellness
- Mental Health
- Productive Aging
- Rehabilitation, Disability and Participation
- Work and Industry
Occupational therapy educational programs prepare you for general practice, so specialization means continuing your education after you have graduated and taken the national certifying exam.
Occupational Therapy Career Outlook and Salary
The BLS reports that between 2008 and 2018, employment of occupational therapists is expected to grow by 26 percent, which is much faster than the average, while the employment of occupational therapist assistants and aides is expected to grow 30 percent. As of May 2009, the median annual salary for occupational therapists was $69,630, with the 10th percentile earning a median salary of $45,340 and the 90th percentile earning a median salary of $100,430. The median salary for occupational therapist assistants was $50,250. The 10th percentile earned a median salary of $33,350 and the 90th percentile earned a median salary of $68,450. Occupational therapist aides earned a median annual salary of $25,730.
Resources for OTs, Assistants and Aides: