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  • Writer's pictureEngage PT, OT, SLP Therapy and Wellness

What Makes Occupational Therapy Different?




When arriving at an occupational therapy evaluation or hearing about services for the first time, you may be wondering, “what even is occupational therapy?”. Physical and speech therapy have straightforward names, identifying exactly the skills that they plan to work on. Occupational therapy is a little bit different. The word “occupation” relates to any daily task that a person wants to do, or has to do everyday. These may include personal care tasks such as being able to use the bathroom independently, taking a shower, eating, combing or brushing hair and more. Or, “occupation” may refer to other tasks.


Maybe you’re a student and need to be able to read the board to be successful in class, but struggle with your vision. Maybe you are retired and want to be able to use your I-Pad independently, but struggle with sequencing the steps. Maybe you want to be able to place your pills into your pill organizer for the week, but your fine motor skills and coordination makes it too difficult. Take a second to think about a task in your life that may be challenging. Is this something that occupational therapy could help you with? 


There is definitely some overlap between physical, occupational, and speech services. Occupational therapy may seem similar to physical therapy at times, but may differ in its approach. Occupational therapy focuses on the environment and components of a task that an individual must be successful in. In order to complete various activities we may need to improve our skills (vision, coordination, perception, etc.) However, there are times when it just may not just be our skills that need to improve.  Sometimes, it is actually our environment or the way the task is set up that needs to be changed!


Someone with dementia may not be able to change their condition. However, occupational therapy can focus on adapting the environment so that they may be successful. This person may be unable to complete a full load of laundry like they were able to before. This goal might not be appropriate for them to work towards. But, we can identify tasks that they are successful in, perhaps with folding towels after they come out of the dryer while listening to music. This task will promote cognitive stimulation while encouraging self-efficacy. This way, you can still take an active role in home management tasks, just in a different way than before.


Let’s think of another task. Someone may need to work on navigating in a small space to be able to sit and use the bathroom independently. While physical therapists are the ultimate experts on gait and mobility, an occupational therapist may work with someone on this skill because toileting is an integral part of daily living that a person may want to have improved independence in. An OT may also ask for photos or analyze the bathroom itself, as they may recommend different equipment or a bathroom setup to make things easier. 


Occupational therapy and speech therapy also have some similarities. You may work with a speech therapist to improve your cognitive skills, such as your memory or word finding! These cognitive skills are typically based on the context of language (word retrieval, executive functioning, etc.) Occupational therapy may focus on other forms of cognition that may have less focus on language specifically, such as spatial relations, visual perception, multi-tasking, attention and more. They may also take a sensory approach, focusing on how to adapt environments to be more or less stimulating depending on the needs of the person.


One helpful example is thinking about someone who prior to a head injury was able to scramble eggs and fry bacon at the same time but now is unable to. Occupational therapy may focus on improving their cognitive skills so that they can complete these tasks to be more successful in meal preparation tasks at home. Occupational and speech therapy may also overlap when it comes to self-feeding. Speech is integral in addressing and assisting individuals with any self-feeding challenges, especially when food goes into the mouth and with what happens afterwards. OT will focus on self-feeding before food enters the mouth, especially on motor difficulties during self-feeding or providing visual accommodations (contrast, decreased glare) for those who are having visual difficulties that are impacting their ability to feed themselves. 


Understanding the differences between physical, occupational and speech therapy may be complex to understand. If you are having confusion, the best thing to do is to ask! One of the most powerful aspects of Engage Therapy and Wellness is the multidisciplinary approach we take to helping each person we come across. Physical, occupational, and speech therapy may have their different approaches, but their most crucial similarity is that they allow those with neurological conditions to live their lives with greater independence and success. Please reach out to us if you have any questions or if you would like to learn more about occupational therapy! Below is one last very simple example to read through to offer you some additional information on the differences between each discipline.  


Here are some examples: 


An eighty year old man with Parkinson’s Disease is having difficulties with walking, communicating with his wife, dressing and feeding himself. 


PT’s role: Works with this patient on implementation of freezing of gait strategies, using assistive devices (cane, walker, etc.) Recommends and instructs patient in home program focused on improving strength, mobility, and balance. Works with individual on their safety in the home so that they are able to move through their house independently without falls. 


OT’s role: Focuses specifically on dressing, implementation of exercises to improve scapular retraction and upper body range of motion for improved ability to put on shirts. Recommends weighted and built up utensils for easier self-feeding to limit impact of tremor. Practices dressing and self-feeding specifically in the clinic during sessions. 


Speech’s role: Engagement in Speak OUT! protocol to improve vocal volume and other qualities so the patient can communicate more effectively with his wife. Focuses on reflux, any swallowing concerns or aspiration risks during self-feeding.


An OT can help if you are having difficulty performing your daily routine. Reach out to Engage therapy and wellness at 315-810-2423 today and see if occupational therapy may be right for you! 

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