Occupational Therapist Assistants and Aides - What They Do

Occupational therapist assistants and aides work under the supervision of occupational therapists to provide rehabilitative services to persons with mental, physical, emotional, or developmental impairments. The ultimate goal is to improve clients' quality of life and ability to perform daily activities. For example, occupational therapist assistants help injured workers re-enter the labor force by teaching them how to compensate for lost motor skills or help individuals with learning disabilities increase their independence.

Occupational therapist assistants help clients with rehabilitative activities and exercises outlined in a treatment plan developed in collaboration with an occupational therapist. Activities range from teaching the proper method of moving from a bed into a wheelchair to the best way to stretch and limber the muscles of the hand. Assistants monitor an individual's activities to make sure that they are performed correctly and to provide encouragement. They also record their client's progress for the occupational therapist. If the treatment is not having the intended effect, or the client is not improving as expected, the therapist may alter the treatment program in hopes of obtaining better results. In addition, occupational therapist assistants document the billing of the client's health insurance provider.

Occupational therapist aides typically prepare materials and assemble equipment used during treatment. They are responsible for a range of clerical tasks, including scheduling appointments, answering the telephone, restocking or ordering depleted supplies, and filling out insurance forms or other paperwork. Aides are not regulated by States, so the law does not allow them to perform as wide a range of tasks as occupational therapist assistants.

Work Environment

Occupational therapist assistants and aides need to have a moderate degree of strength because of the physical exertion required to assist patients. For example, assistants and aides may need to lift patients. Constant kneeling, stooping, and standing for long periods also are part of the job.

The hours and days that occupational therapist assistants and aides work vary by facility and whether they are full time or part time. For example, many outpatient therapy offices and clinics have evening and weekend hours to coincide with patients' schedules.

Education & Training Required

Occupational therapist assistants must attend a school accredited by the Accreditation Council for Occupational Therapy Education (ACOTE) in order to sit for the national certifying exam for occupational therapist assistants. There were 135 ACOTE accredited occupational therapist assistant programs in 2009.

The first year of study typically involves an introduction to healthcare, basic medical terminology, anatomy, and physiology. In the second year, courses are more rigorous and usually include occupational therapy courses in areas such as mental health, adult physical disabilities, gerontology, and pediatrics. Students also must complete at least 16 weeks of supervised fieldwork in a clinic or community setting.

Applicants to occupational therapist assistant programs can improve their chances of admission by taking high school courses in biology and health and by performing volunteer work in nursing care facilities, occupational or physical therapists' offices, or other healthcare settings.

Occupational therapist aides usually receive most of their training on the job. Qualified applicants must have a high school diploma, strong interpersonal skills, and a desire to help people in need. Applicants may increase their chances of getting a job by volunteering their services, thus displaying initiative and aptitude to the employer.

Certifications Needed (Licensure)

Forty States, Guam, Puerto Rico, and the District of Columbia regulate the practice of occupational therapist assistants either by licensing, registration, or certification. In addition, eligibility requirements vary by State. Contact your State’s licensing board for specific regulatory requirements on occupational therapist assistants.

Some States have additional requirements for therapist assistants who work in schools or early intervention programs. These requirements may include education-related classes, an education practice certificate, or early intervention certification.

Other Skills Required (Other qualifications)

Certification is voluntary. The National Board for Certifying Occupational Therapy certifies occupational therapist assistants through a national certifying exam. Those who pass the test are awarded the title Certified Occupational Therapy Assistant (COTA). In some States, the national certifying exam meets requirements for regulation, but other States have their own licensing exam.

Occupational therapist assistants are expected to continue their professional development by participating in continuing education courses and workshops in order to maintain certification. A number of States require continuing education as a condition of maintaining licensure.

Assistants and aides must be responsible, patient, and willing to take directions and work as part of a team. Furthermore, they should be caring and want to help people who are not able to help themselves.

Occupational Therapist Assistants and Aides - What They Do - Page 2

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