What Is Occupational Therapy?

Medically reviewed by Andrea Brant, LMHC
Updated May 17, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

People usually use the word "occupation" to refer to a job or work environment. That being said, this approach is often mistaken for someone who counsels on things like job growth or the Bureau of Labor Statistics. However, occupational therapy services are unrelated to your profession. Instead, OT is a rehabilitation approach that has many similarities to physical therapy (PT). Developed by the American Occupational Therapy Association, American occupational therapy’s goal is to allow you to accomplish daily tasks and other skills you need to do to take care of yourself. Read on to learn about the many different types of OT and how they might benefit you.

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What is occupational therapy?
Occupational Therapy (OT) is a type of therapy in which the therapist helps the client gain or regain life skills, so they can complete everyday tasks. These everyday life tasks (also known as "occupations") may take place at home, in a nursing home, in outpatient clinics, or a community.

For example, you may need to be able to drive and go to the grocery store to maintain independence. If you're currently unable to do so, OT therapists can help you learn or relearn those skills so you can live independently. Alternatively, a geriatric client in a nursing home might only need support learning to do simpler tasks, such as grooming, socializing, and walking without losing balance. Some occupational therapists support individuals in fun daily activities like hobbies, whereas others may support their clients’ health. They may also help with caregiver training, informing caretakers or family members how to help the patient. 

Activities of daily living

To understand OT, we need to look at the phrase "activities of daily living." Activities of Daily Living (ADL) is a specific list of tasks that the client needs to do to be able to manage their daily life. Items on the list might include:

  • Eating
  • Bathing
  • Using the restroom
  • Transferring (being able to move in and out of bed or a chair without help)
  • Maintaining continence (having control of your bladder and bowels)

In addition, your OT program might include other activities, which often fall under the category of Instrumental Daily Activities:

  • Community mobility
  • Safety procedures

Finally, other tasks may be considered important enough to be routinely included in OT, including:

  • Education
  • Leisure activities
  • Work
  • Play
  • Social interaction

Physical therapy

Occupational therapy and physical therapy share many of the same goals and attributes. Both are led by educators and trainers, and both help you master skills and perform daily tasks and living functions. In addition, both may help you heal from and then avoid injuries. However, each approach has its focus and methods.

The differences between OT and PT are sometimes subtle and sometimes obvious. Most importantly, they each have different goals. Physical therapy aims to strengthen the muscles, while OT makes it possible for you to take care of yourself, whether that's physically, mentally, socially, or in another practical way. One of the basic tenets OT is to help individuals participate in the important activities of their life in a meaningful way. Of course, it's easier to complete daily tasks when your muscles work as effectively as possible. Therefore, the two types of therapy are often used for the same client during a rehabilitation period.

What happens during a session?

Occupational therapy sessions consist of education and training, which is usually related to mental tasks or physical strength, coordination, and balance.

The therapist may also teach you about how to interact socially and help you practice communication skills. Whether you're working on a simple task like bathing or a complex task like driving, the therapist explains what you need to know given your physical and/or mental condition. Eventually, you'll practice that skill until it becomes easier, or you and your therapist will find a different way to solve your ADL challenge.

Occupational therapists: Who practices occupational therapy?

Occupational therapists work with occupational therapy assistants to provide treatment. A client can be anyone of any age who has physical, mental, or social limitations that stop them from accomplishing their tasks of daily living satisfactorily.

Occupational therapists have a bachelor’s degree in a field like biology or health sciences, and until recently, a master’s degree was required for all occupational therapists. However, in 2017 the American Occupational Therapy Association announced that all masters programs were to be moved to a doctoral level by 2027, and that an entry-level OT must acquire a doctoral degree. Certified occupational therapy assistants (COTAs) require an associate degree in occupational therapy to practice according to the requirements set forth by the American Occupational Therapy Association.

Both of these practitioners are required by this occupational therapy organization to take a state licensure certification exam, as well as take continuing education classes and work on professional development through AOTA-approved courses online and in educational or professional settings. Some of these education classes are tailored to specialty certifications that can be useful in a number of different practice settings. Because OT is an evidence-based practice, practitioners are expected to stay current on new knowledge and update skills needed to apply new information. 

When occupational therapy is practiced

According to the National Library of Medicine, you may need OT at any time in your life. If you're a child, you might go to OT when a doctor, therapist, or social worker determines that you have a mental or physical condition that will limit your functioning. If, on the other hand, you become disabled, your doctor might recommend OT at some point. Later in life, your gerontologist might send you to OT if your mental or physical capabilities are beginning to diminish because of your age or age-related conditions.

Finally, after an injury, you might be referred to OT after you've already been in PT long enough to build the strength needed for your ADL. At that point, classes can help you learn and practice how to do the Activities of Daily Living.

Where occupational therapy is practiced

Occupational therapy programs can be found in hospitals, psychiatric facilities, schools, workplaces, clients' homes, health care clinics, a personal practice, nursing homes, rehabilitation centers, independent facilities, and other locations that work with mental health and healthcare. Occupational therapy sessions may be carried out in a central location, or they may occur in the client's home or elsewhere in the community.

Assessments: Daily living activities

iStock/Fly View Productions

Your first session is typically an assessment where the occupational therapist goes through your medical history and the list of Activities of Daily Living or ADL. They'll ask you about any problems you have with your ADL and may request specifics about how you do them. For instance, they might ask you if you have any problems eating. If you respond "no" because you're able to put food in your mouth and swallow, the OT therapist may ask more specific questions, such as:

  • Do you cook your meals?
  • Do you buy your groceries?
  • Do you have someone who does these things for you?

Another part of the assessment will gauge your motivation and find out what you would like to be able to do. You might not be physically and/or mentally fit enough to do everything you would like, or your abilities may be uncertain. The important thing is to set reasonable goals and remember that you can always set new ones after you achieve your current occupational therapy goals.

Finally, the therapist might also request that you perform certain everyday activities during the assessment. For example, they might ask you to get up and down from a chair or bed, so they can observe any difficulties you might have. After the assessment, they'll write up their findings and create a treatment plan. At your second session, the therapist typically reviews the treatment plan with you and may begin working with you that same day.


OT activities led by an occupational therapist can be interesting, but if you don't know why you're doing them, it may be difficult to stay motivated. Your therapist can tell you the therapeutic use of each exercise or activity to help motivate you; in fact, they'll probably tell you before you ask. Even better, most of the activities have an element of fun.

Some of the activities require special equipment, but most of it is fairly inexpensive. Still, the more you can accomplish in your sessions, the less you may have to buy later on when you're continuing to practice by yourself.

Meaningful activities are capable of promoting health, physical strength, mental competence, and social skills. You might work on gross motor skills with one activity and fine motor skills with another. For example, you could play games that enhance your ability to react more quickly, while another activity may help you follow directions more closely. Your therapist has a myriad of choices for helping you learn how to complete your Activities of Daily Living more easily and competently.

Types of services

Because OT is used for people of all ages and circumstances, therapists can choose from any of a large number of specialties, some of which are listed below.


You might be wondering why children might need OT, but you should know that it's often helpful for children or young people who have or have experienced one of the following conditions:

  • Child development disabilities
  • Neurodivergence such as ADHD
  • Learning disabilities
  • Mental disorders such as depression or schizophrenia
  • Physical disabilities such as low vision or poor hearing
  • Injury, abuse, or neglect

If you or a loved one is experiencing abuse, contact the Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233). Support is available 24/7.

Early intervention programs led by therapists often include occupational therapy as one of their modalities. Children as young as 2-years-old can benefit from OT if they need it. Regardless of the challenges they face, a therapist can help them succeed.


OT for autism is a specialty where therapists may work with children, adolescents, and adults to help them manage social and communication difficulties as well as participate in their ADL.

Sessions may take place in a school or daycare if the client is a child. For adults on the autism spectrum with high-support needs, the sessions may take place in an adult care facility.


Geriatric occupational therapy is usually focused on the most basic Activities of Daily Living. As people age, they may lose their ability to do everyday tasks that many of us take for granted. Chewing and swallowing, bathing, toileting, getting in and out of bed, and controlling our bladder and bowels may slowly become more and more difficult. Others may need to relearn many skills after they're temporarily or partially disabled following a stroke. 

OT can help older people stay independent in their own homes for longer, by promoting physical activity and implementing modifications where needed. Furthermore, it can help them deal with Alzheimer's or dementia, arthritis, or any of the other chronic conditions older adults commonly face.

Occupational therapists in this specialty not only help those who are losing their abilities due to age, but also older people who have disabilities or injuries just like anyone else.

Mental health

OT for mental health is a growing field. People with mental disorders such as anxiety/panic attacks, depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and other mental illnesses are sometimes referred to OT or take classes in a hospital setting. In the case of mental illness, occupational therapy helps them learn better self-care and prevent relapse of symptoms.

Physical rehabilitation

Occupational therapy practitioners who specialize in physical rehabilitation usually work with clients with injuries or permanent disabilities. People who have been seriously injured usually need OT for some time before they can resume their normal activities.

In addition, people who have always been disabled or who become disabled later in life can also benefit from OT, but they may need to do things differently than most people. The goal is to help them learn to complete their ADLs in the way that's best suited to their condition and situation. This specialty is not PT, but it's usually used in conjunction with PT as part of patients treatment plans.

Driving and community mobility

For many people, driving is such a crucial skill that it's hard to survive without it in some locations. A driving and community mobility occupational therapist may teach disabled clients how to drive and/or use adaptive equipment. As part of this, they may assess whether the client is even able to drive and, if so, advocate for them in court cases intended to take away their license. If the client is not able to drive, the therapist focuses on other means of community mobility, such as riding the bus or taking a taxi.

Environmental modification

How limited you are by a disability often has a lot to do with your environment; if your home isn't well-suited to your condition, you can feel helpless. Occupational therapists who specialize in environmental modification may look at your home, school, and/or workplace to determine if any modifications are needed to support you in living, studying, or working there.

Once they see what you're dealing with, they can create a plan for the modifications. They can also work with a landlord, principal, or home improvement company to ensure the modifications are installed correctly. Typical accommodations include:

  • Bathroom grab bars
  • Ramps
  • Wider doors
  • Special hardware such as flat door handles
  • Lower or higher kitchen counters according to need

Feeding, eating, and swallowing

Feeding, eating, and swallowing specialists help you work on these basic survival needs. Because of certain medical conditions, like multiple sclerosis, or due to age, swallowing can become so difficult that people have to relearn how to do it. Therapy, therefore, involves the physical skills of feeding, eating, and swallowing, along with the social and cultural aspects of eating.

Low vision

Low vision specialists in the OT field treat people who have low vision due to eye disease, injury, or brain injury. They help their clients procure adaptive equipment and teach them how to use it. They also work with optometrists, ophthalmologists, and other vision specialists.

School systems specialty

A school systems specialist is just what it sounds like. It's someone who works in schools, whether that's a preschool, elementary school, middle school, or high school. They also help students who are making the transition to another school or from a school to the workplace.

Online tools for occupational therapy

The online resources available for OT have increased tremendously in recent years, especially for children. You can find games, exercises, puzzles, charts, books, equipment, and suggestions with only a few clicks. Here are some resources that might interest you:

Evaluations from an occupational therapist

After you've been in OT for a specified period, your therapist will evaluate to find out how far you've progressed. These patient evaluations are similar to the assessments completed during the first session. After the therapist completes the evaluation, they can then adjust your treatment plan or create a new one based on your progress. This ensures that you stay with the tasks you haven't conquered yet and also advance when you're ready. Your occupational therapy program might change, but the goal is still to promote health and help you do your daily activities.

Want to learn more about the types of occupational therapy?

Help is available

At this point, you might be wondering how to find an occupational therapy clinical practice near you. In many cases, your doctor or case manager will set it up for you, though your insurance company may limit the providers they will approve to help you. Luckily, in most cases, you do have some control over who you choose. Either way, be sure to compare OT programs and costs to get the best help you can afford.

If you've been referred to an occupational therapist or have already started sessions, you might want to talk to someone about the reasons you need OT in the first place. Perhaps you're struggling with the limitations following a traumatic brain injury, or you're in pain or discomfort due to chronic diseases. Alternatively, you might be experiencing depression or anxiety.

Whatever the reason, BetterHelp's licensed counselors are well-qualified to help you overcome emotional obstacles, so you can achieve independence and happiness. Everybody needs well-rounded support at one time or another, and BetterHelp can be a part of your solution.

Overall, online therapy is just as effective as in-person sessions. According to recent research, many mental health professionals were able to find little measurable difference between the progress of in-person sessions and virtual sessions, with many having positive opinions about the future of online interventions. One study found that people who used BetterHelp experienced a significant decrease in the severity of depression symptoms.

The online nature of BetterHelp enables it to be highly convenient; sessions can be held anytime, anywhere – even in the comfort of your home! Additionally, sessions are tailored to your circumstances and needs, able to be conducted via phone call, video chat, live voice recording, or instant messaging/texting. It’s been found to be particularly useful in rural areas where getting to traditional offices is difficult due to distance limitations, as well as for those who have busy schedules.

BetterHelp therapist reviews

Below are some reviews of BetterHelp counselors from people experiencing similar situations.

"Mark has been a great supportive guide in my struggles. I am very thankful for his ability to shine a light on the specifics of my issues and clear the air so I can see more clearly and have the tools to act in my best self-interest."

"Bella is amazing!!! It's like I've known her all my life! Like she knows what I am about to say before I say it! I am not sure how I got so lucky to find her it feels like I'm talking to a great friend but yet I get the best advice and she helps me figure out the best ways to work through my struggles! I feel like I handle stress so much better after talking to her I am forever grateful to have found her."


Occupational therapy may seem intimidating at first, but it's a straightforward process that can help you lead a more fulfilling life. If you need additional support from a counselor along the way, BetterHelp is here for you. All you need are the right tools.
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