We all know occupational therapy (OT) is important, but how many of us really understand what it is? What it’s meant to achieve? Some of us know we need to advocate for it but can’t really explain why it’s needed.
The simple answer: Occupational therapists help people master anything that occupies their time.
From writing, to pouring a bowl of cereal, to riding a bike, to opening a can of beer – their job is to help you do it.
Just some of the many tools OTs utilize and even develop to make help their patients achieve their goals.
Think about the things you do every day: going to the bathroom, brushing teeth, feminine hygiene, getting dressed, navigating stairs, going to a restaurant, buying a muffin. And then think about how disability can affect doing these things that many of us take for granted.
Occupational therapists help us find our way, whether it is a child at school learning how to write or a woman born without arms learning to put on a bra. These professionals use their training and outside the box thinking to help us do the things we want and need to do.
Occupational therapy first emerged as a profession in the United States 100 years ago, but the practice can be traced back to 100 BCE when a Greek physician used massage, exercise, baths, and music to help heal patients.
The American Occupational Therapeutic Association (AOTA) was established in 1917 under a different name. The organization was founded under the belief “in remedial properties of human occupation.” To become an OT, you must obtain a masters degree in the field, pass a board exam, and obtain and maintain your license. There are also Occupational Therapy Assistants (OTA). OTAs need an associates degree along with certification, licensing, and/or registration in most states. OTAs assist OTs and can be an affordable option for schools facing staffing difficulties.
According to AOTA, “In its simplest terms, occupational therapists … help people across the lifespan participate in the things they want and need to do through the therapeutic use of everyday activities (occupations). Common occupational therapy interventions include helping children with disabilities to participate fully in school and social situations, helping people recovering from injury to regain skills, and providing supports for older adults experiencing physical and cognitive changes.”
Christine Cridland works with client Lucia, doing hair.
To truly understand what an OT does, I asked one. But not just anybody, I reached out to my friend Christine Cridland who was named Alexandria, Virginia’s best OT in 2017 by the local publication Zebra Magazine. She said many of the first official OTs helped soldiers return to their typical “occupations” by using crafts. “Thus, using proper positioning, muscles, coordination, dexterity, adaptive techniques and materials, and more.”
Cridland once worked in a neonatal intensive care unit showing families how to better position, regulate, and swaddle their newborns. “In assistive living facilities,” she says, “I helped elderly clients remain in their apartments assessing independence in medication or money management, as well as daily living skills such as preparing a meal or entering the shower safely.”
The author’s son Arlo, who is not a fan of handwriting, working on writing with Christine Cridland.
Full disclosure, she’s not just a friend, but was my 7-year-old son’s longtime private OT. It might seem like working with a child with Down syndrome and a soldier returning from war would be extremely different, but at its core – it’s all the same. You recognize what the individual needs and wants to do and you find ways to help them become successful.
For a child, it might be teaching how to make a peanut butter sandwich. Cridland noted how one client she worked with had a hard time because he would rip the bread when trying to spread toppings. She noted, “the boy has enough strength, he has balance, and he can follow steps. He would be more successful if we first practiced on a thick bagel.”
OT Christine Cridland utilizing a 3D printer to make adaptive tools for patients.
This month at a conference she made an adaptive bottle opener for an elderly person with limited hand strength and range of motion – using 3D printing technology.
Working in such a unique field, I asked Cridland what her favorite part of her job is. She said, “I love laughing every day, seeing the value of my work, collaborating with families and teachers to identify the needs of a baby or school-aged child and implementing goals that address independence, self-regulation, strength, and advocacy. I like being creative with what the family has to offer and support their goals. I remember years ago, my OT jobs were more varied. For example, in one day I saw a baby in NICU and then at the end of the day, I was an OT in a nursing home working on self-care skills and endurance with a 100-year-old man! There’s definitely variety in OT … across the lifespan!”
Christine and her daughters at President George Washington’s Mount Vernon estate.