Occupational therapy assistants provide support for individuals who are struggling with the activities of everyday living, with tasks that most people take for granted. These assistants work under the supervision of occupational therapists to care for patients dealing with injuries, illnesses or disabilities ranging from autism to Parkinson's disease. This type of therapy often focuses on life's basic tasks, helping patients achieve the skills they need to handle daily duties at home or at work. Occupational therapy assisting jobs span varied responsibilities such as the following:
- Assist patients in therapeutic activities, including stretches and other exercises.
- Lead children with developmental disabilities in play designed to improve coordination.
- Instruct patients in the proper use of specific equipment, such as devices to make the act of eating less difficult.
- Chart patient status and report progress to the occupational therapist.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that many occupational therapy assistants are employed in the offices of physical, occupational and speech therapists, followed by nursing care facilities and hospitals, with the remainder in elementary or secondary schools and home healthcare services. These assistants generally work full time and may have to adjust their schedules by working evenings or weekends. Occupational therapy assistants are on their feet much of the time, setting up equipment and helping patients. These professionals must be compassionate, caring and encouraging, as well as physically fit (BLS.gov/ooh, 2012).
How to Become an Occupational Therapy Assistant
Those interested in occupational therapy assisting jobs need an associate degree and a license in most states (BLS.gov/ooh, 2012). The following steps could help individuals interested in entering this occupation, although employment cannot be guaranteed:
- Earn a high school diploma or equivalent.
- Optional: Take courses such as biology and health, and volunteer in a healthcare setting, for example, the office of an occupational or physical therapist or a nursing care facility.
- Complete an associate degree that includes coursework as well as clinical fieldwork to gain practical experience. Occupational therapy assisting training programs can be found at community colleges or technical schools.
- Pass the exam for occupational therapy assistant licensure.
- Pursue voluntary certification by passing a standard exam. Certification requires completion of an accredited training program.
- Apply to entry-level occupational therapy assistant jobs.
- Fulfill continuing education requirements to maintain license if applicable.
In those states that require occupational therapy assistants to be licensed, graduation from an accredited occupational therapy assistant program is necessary.
Post-Education Requirements: Certifications and/or State Licensing
Individuals interested in this field should research their particular state's requirements for licensure and continuing education. Optional certification as a Certified Occupational Therapy Assistant (COTA) requires passing the exam from the National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy and graduating from an accredited program. There are also some "bridge" programs designed for occupational therapy assistants seeking to become occupational therapists.
Occupational Therapy Assistant Job Growth and Average Salary
The BLS projects a 43 percent national increase in employment for occupational therapy assistants between 2010 and 2020, which is significantly faster than the average growth rate for all other U.S. occupations (BLS.gov/ooh, 2012). This demand is attributed to the growing number of seniors who may require therapy for conditions such as arthritis. Children and young adults with developmental disabilities also require occupational therapy. Additionally, occupational therapists are expected to employ more assistants in order to lower service costs, as qualified assistants are able to provide much of the treatment prescribed by therapists. As of May 2012, the national median annual wage for occupational therapy assistants was $53,240, with the top 10 percent earning more than $73,120 and the lowest 10 percent earning below $32,970 (BLS.gov/oes, 2013). Occupational therapy assisting salary figures can vary according to factors such as geographic location, experience and education.
List of Related Careers
Studies in an occupational therapy assistant program may help prepare students to pursue other career options, which might require some additional experience or education. Possible careers to explore include the following:
- Physical Therapy Assistants: Similar to occupational therapy assistants working under an occupational therapist, these assistants perform their duties under the direction of a physical therapist and help recovering patients regain movement and manage pain. This position usually requires an associate degree in the field.
- Medical Assistants: In the offices of physicians and other health practitioners, these assistants perform administrative and clinical tasks that vary according to the location, specialty and size of the practice. A high school diploma or equivalent is the minimum qualification, but employers may prefer candidates with formal postsecondary training.
- Occupational Therapists: These therapists care for injured, ill or disabled patients to help them develop or improve the skills needed for living and working. This role typically requires a master's degree. "Bridge" education programs exist for qualified occupational therapy assistants wishing to advance to occupational therapy positions.
For more information about these options, select a career from the list.
Links to Sources and Associations
The following websites offer more information on occupational therapy assistants and occupational therapy assisting training: