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How to Become an Occupational Therapy Assistant

By Anita Akpuoforba

Published:

Experiencing disabilities or injuries can be an overwhelming situation for anyone. However, occupational therapy assistants (OTAs) offer invaluable support, helping individuals in such circumstances heal faster from their injuries or live more comfortably with their disabilities.

Career Summary

If you have a deep passion for making a positive impact on the lives of those who require assistance in their daily activities, especially those who struggle with mobility, a career as an occupational therapy assistant presents an ideal and fulfilling path to explore.

Occupational Therapy Assistant Salary

Occupational Therapy Assistant Salary

According to Glassdoor, the salary scale for occupational therapist assistants follows a trajectory that can be observed below:

  • Entry Salary (US$55k)
  • Median Salary (US$70k)
  • Executive Salary (US$114k)

The median occupational therapy assistant salary compares favorably to the national average salary across the US, which was $61,900 in 2022, according to the BLS.

What does an Occupational Therapy Assistant do?

An occupational therapy assistant works under the supervision of licensed occupational therapists to provide hands-on support and assistance to individuals undergoing occupational therapy.

Their role involves working directly with clients to implement treatment plans and interventions designed by the occupational therapist to help them improve their functional abilities. They also give cognitive, emotional, and social support when necessary.

Occupational Therapy Assistant Career Progression

  • Entry-Level OTA: At the beginning of their career, they work under the supervision of licensed occupational therapists and focus on implementing treatment plans, assisting with therapeutic activities, and providing support to clients.
  • Mid-Level OTA: At this stage, they become more adept at handling a wide range of client cases and may take on additional responsibilities in treatment planning and progress monitoring.
  • Senior OTA: This is the stage where occupational therapy assistants with more years of experience will be allowed to mentor junior occupational therapy assistants, assist in program development, and contribute to improving therapy protocols.
  • Specialization: At some point, occupational therapy assistants could choose to specialize in specific areas of occupational therapy such as pediatrics, geriatrics, mental health, hand therapy, or neurorehabilitation.
Occupational Therapy Assistant Career Progression

Pros:

  • Job security.
  • Working in a variety of settings.
  • Salaries are generally competitive.
  • High level of job satisfaction due to meaningful work.
  • Collaborating with a community of professionals who are dedicated to helping people.

Cons:

  • Potential for burnout due to the physical demands of the job.
  • Witnessing clients’ struggles and setbacks can be emotionally challenging.
  • Higher risk of exposure to contagious illnesses.
  • Occupational therapy assistants may be required to work long hours.
  • Handling documentation and administrative tasks can be time-consuming.

Valuable Skills to Have as an Occupational Therapy Assistant

  • Empathy and compassion.
  • Anatomy and physiology knowledge.
  • Professional boundaries.
  • Effective communication skills.
  • Skillful hand movements and coordination.

Popular Occupational Therapy Assistant Specialties

  • Pediatrics
  • Geriatrics
  • Mental Health
  • Physical Rehabilitation
  • Worksite Ergonomics
  • Neurological Rehabilitation
  • Home Health Care

How to become an Occupational Therapist Assistant

Occupational Therapy Assistant 5 Steps to Career

Step 1: Enroll in an Accredited OTA Program

The first step in becoming an occupational therapy assistant is to complete an accredited OTA program and earn an associate’s degree. This program will teach you the skills and knowledge you need to work as an occupational therapy assistant, such as anatomy, physiology, psychology, and occupational therapy theory and practice.

  • Duration: Most accredited associate degree programs in occupational therapy assistant take about two years to complete.
  • Cost: The cost of an OTA associate’s degree program is determined by factors such as the type of institution (public or private), location, length of the program, and any additional fees or expenses included in the tuition. However, the average cost for the program typically falls between $5,000 and $24,000.

Can I become an Occupational Therapy Assistant through online education?

Yes, you can become an occupational therapy assistant through online education, but it’s essential to recognize that the path will include some in-person components as well.

While many schools offer online coursework for the theoretical part of the program, OTA education also requires hands-on practice and fieldwork. This practical experience is crucial in developing the skills needed to work with patients effectively, and it must be completed in person under the supervision of licensed occupational therapists.

When considering an online OTA program, make sure it is accredited by the Accreditation Council for Occupational Therapy Education (ACOTE) or a similar accrediting body. Accredited programs will meet the standards required for licensure and certification, and they will include provisions for completing the necessary in-person fieldwork.

In summary, you can complete a significant portion of your OTA education online, but you will still need to fulfill in-person clinical and fieldwork requirements. Always ensure the program you choose is accredited and meets the requirements for licensure in your state.

Step 2: Gain Fieldwork Experience

As part of the accredited program, students must complete supervised fieldwork. This hands-on experience allows students to apply what they’ve learned in a real-world setting.

What are internship opportunities for an Occupational Therapy Assistant?

Occupational therapy assistants can find internship opportunities in various settings, including clinical environments like hospitals and rehab centers; educational institutions working with special needs children; specialized pediatric and mental health facilities; home health agencies; geriatric care facilities; hand therapy centers; and specialized clinics focusing on specific conditions such as sensory integration or autism. However, the availability of these internships may vary based on the program and location.

What Skills Will I Learn as an Occupational Therapy Assistant?

As an occupational therapy assistant, you will acquire a diverse set of skills that are essential for providing high-quality care and support to clients.

Some of the key skills you will learn include:

  • Therapeutic Techniques: Various therapeutic techniques and interventions to help clients improve their physical, cognitive, and emotional abilities. This includes activities to enhance fine and gross motor skills, sensory integration techniques, and cognitive training exercises.
  • Assessment and Evaluation: Conduct assessments and evaluations to determine clients’ strengths, challenges, and functional abilities. These assessments guide treatment planning and help monitor clients’ progress.
  • Adaptive Equipment and Assistive Technology: Trained to recommend and use adaptive equipment and assistive technology that can aid clients in performing daily activities and tasks independently.
  • Activity Analysis: Analyze activities and tasks to identify the specific skills and components required. This skill helps in creating meaningful and purposeful interventions for clients.
  • Crisis Intervention and Coping Strategies: Trained to handle crisis situations and provide coping strategies for clients dealing with emotional or behavioral challenges.
  • Occupational Safety: Learn about safety protocols and techniques to ensure a safe environment for both clients and themselves during therapy sessions.
  • Documentation and Record Keeping: Maintain accurate and comprehensive documentation of client sessions, progress reports, and treatment plans.
  • Communication Skills: Effective communication is vital in an occupational therapy assistant’s role to interact with clients, their families, and the interdisciplinary team to ensure coordinated care.

Step 3: Obtain NBCOT Certification

The National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy (NBCOT) administers the exam that all occupational therapy assistants must pass in order to be certified.

The exam covers a wide range of topics, including:

  • Principles of occupational therapy.
  • Assessment and evaluation.
  • Intervention planning and implementation.
  • Documentation and reporting.

If you do pass the exam, your NBCOT COTA certification is initially granted for a four-year period, after which you would be required to renew it every three years.

Step 4: Obtain State Licensure

In order to practice as an occupational therapy assistant, you must also obtain a license from your state. The requirements for licensure vary from state to state, so you will need to check with your state’s occupational therapy board to learn more.

  • Duration: The requirements for state licensure vary from state to state, but most states require occupational therapy assistants to have a minimum of two years of experience working under the supervision of an occupational therapist.
  • Cost: The cost of obtaining a state license to practice as an occupational therapy assistant can vary depending on the state. However, it typically ranges between US$30 and US$250. In addition to the license fee, you may also need to pay for the cost of fingerprinting and background checks.

Without an occupational therapy assistant certification and your state license, you will be unable to practice, regardless of the skills you have. After years of working in the field, you can apply for specialty certifications to help you rise up the ranks even faster.

Step 5: Continuing Education and Professional Development

You can position yourself for career advancement and long-term success as an occupational therapy assistant if you take the following steps:

  • Continuing Education: Pursue additional certifications, workshops, or advanced courses to expand your knowledge and skills in specific areas of occupational therapy. Also, stay informed about the latest trends by reading research papers and attending conferences.
  • Specialization: Consider specializing in a particular field of occupational therapy, such as pediatrics, geriatrics, hand therapy, or mental health. Specializations can open up new career opportunities and increase your earning potential.
  • Networking: Build professional relationships with colleagues, occupational therapists, and other healthcare professionals. Networking can lead to job referrals, mentorship opportunities, and valuable insights into the industry.
  • Volunteering: Seek volunteer experiences in various healthcare settings to gain exposure to different specialties and enhance your resume.
  • Professional Associations: Join relevant professional associations for occupational therapy assistants. These associations provide access to resources, conferences, and networking opportunities.

Useful web resources for  Occupational Therapy Assistants

There are many web resources available to supplement your knowledge about occupational therapy.

Here are a few of the most valuable:

  • OccupationalTherapy.com: This website provides continuing education courses and webinars for OTAs and other healthcare professionals.
  • Occupational Therapy Blogs: Explore various occupational therapy blogs authored by experienced occupational therapists and occupational therapy assistants, such as My OT Spot for valuable insights and learning opportunities.
  • Chicago Occupational Therapy: Offers a dedicated section of occupational therapy resources across a broad scope.
  • OT Potential: A blog and community offering occupational therapy resources, including reviews of recent research, tools for clinicians, and forums for professional discussions.
  • Podcasts: Listening to podcasts focused on occupational therapy can be a great way to stay updated with industry insights and trends. Examples include Seniors Flourish and OT School House.

By engaging with these resources, you can continue to grow in your profession, stay informed about the latest research and trends, and connect with fellow professionals in the field.

What’s the Career Outlook for Occupational Therapy Assistants?

The overall employment of occupational therapy assistants and aides is projected to grow 25 percent from 2021 to 2031, much faster than the average for all occupations, as per the Bureau of Labour and Statistics.

Here are some of the factors that are contributing to the growth of the occupational therapy assistant profession:

  • The Aging Population: As people age, they are more likely to experience physical and cognitive decline, which leads to an increased need for therapeutic services to manage age-related conditions, maintain independence, and improve quality of life.
  • The Rise of Chronic Health Conditions: The prevalence of chronic health conditions, such as arthritis, diabetes, and stroke, is also increasing. These conditions can also make it difficult for people to perform everyday activities, and occupational therapy can help people manage their symptoms and maintain their independence.
  • The Growing Awareness of the Benefits of Occupational Therapy: The benefits of occupational therapy are becoming increasingly recognized, and this is leading to an increased demand for OTAs.

Due to the promising career outlook in this field, there is little reason to be concerned about job availability if you decide to pursue this career path. Nevertheless, it is crucial to emphasize the significance of being well-informed and highly skilled. Possessing extensive knowledge and expertise will be a key factor in securing roles faster than other job seekers in this competitive market and landing a higher occupational therapy assistant salary.

Occupational Therapy Assistant Popular Career Specialties

What are the Job Opportunities for an Occupational Therapy Assistant?

Occupational therapy assistants have diverse job opportunities across various settings, allowing them to make a positive impact on the lives of clients with various needs and challenges.

If you are ever asked a specific question like, what does an occupational therapy assistant do? Or you need to pick a particular career path, here are some of the most common job titles you will come across.

  • Rehabilitation Assistant: As a rehabilitation assistant, you would collaborate with occupational therapists to support clients in their rehabilitation journey. You will assist in implementing therapy plans, providing therapeutic exercises, and helping clients improve their functional abilities and independence.
  • Pediatric Therapy Assistant: In this role, you would specialize in working with children and assisting in pediatric occupational therapy sessions. You will engage in play-based activities, sensory integration techniques, and exercises to help children achieve their developmental milestones.
  • Geriatric Care Assistant: As a geriatric care assistant, you will focus on providing occupational therapy services to elderly individuals. Your role involves aiding in activities of daily living, implementing fall prevention strategies, and promoting a safe and supportive environment for older adults.
  • School-Based Therapy Assistant: Working in educational settings, you will be a school-based assistant collaborating with occupational therapists to support students with special needs. You’ll assist in facilitating therapy sessions, promoting inclusive learning environments, and implementing individualized education plans.
  • Hand Therapy Assistant: In specialized hand therapy clinics, you would work as a hand therapy assistant, helping clients with hand and upper extremity injuries. You’ll assist in administering therapeutic exercises, applying splints, and monitoring progress under the guidance of a hand therapist.
  • Mental Health Support Worker: As a mental health support worker, you will work alongside occupational therapists in mental health facilities. You’ll assist clients with coping skills, social integration, and participation in meaningful activities to improve their mental well-being.
  • Assistive Technology Specialist: In this role, you will specialize in assistive technology, helping clients with disabilities access and use adaptive equipment and assistive devices to improve their daily living skills and independence.
  • Health and Wellness Coach: Some occupational therapy assistants pursue careers as health and wellness coaches, guiding individuals in making healthy lifestyle choices, promoting overall well-being, and supporting behavior change.
  • Recreational Therapy Assistant: Collaborating with recreational therapists, you’ll work as a recreational therapy assistant to engage clients in therapeutic recreational activities that promote physical and emotional well-being.

What Type of Companies Hire an Occupational Therapy Assistant?

Occupational therapy assistants are employed by various types of companies and organizations that provide healthcare, rehabilitation, and support services.

Some of the common types of companies and entities that hire occupational therapy assistants include:

  • Hospitals: General hospitals, specialty hospitals, and rehabilitation hospitals employ occupational therapy assistants to assist in patient care, rehabilitation, and recovery.
  • Rehabilitation Centers: Rehabilitation centers specifically focus on providing therapy services to individuals recovering from injuries, surgeries, or disabilities, making them a significant employer for occupational therapy assistants.
  • Home Health Agencies: Home health agencies hire occupational therapy assistants to deliver therapy services to clients in their homes, promoting independence and safety in their daily living activities.
  • Schools: Educational institutions, particularly schools and school districts, employ occupational therapy assistants to work with students with special needs or developmental challenges.
  • Pediatric Clinics: Pediatric clinics focus on providing therapy services to children, making them suitable employers for occupational therapy assistants interested in working with young populations.
  • Mental Health Facilities: Occupational therapy assistants find opportunities in mental health facilities, where they work with occupational therapists to support clients with mental health conditions and promote well-being.
  • Assisted Living Facilities: Assisted living facilities hire occupational therapy assistants to assist elderly residents in maintaining their independence and improving their quality of life.
  • Community Health Centers: Community health centers and clinics may hire occupational therapy assistants to provide therapy services to underserved populations and individuals with limited access to healthcare.
  • Recreational Therapy Centers: Recreational therapy centers collaborate with occupational therapy assistants to provide therapeutic recreational activities for clients.

What is the Work-Life Balance of an Occupational Therapy Assistant?

The work-life balance of an occupational therapy assistant can vary depending on the setting in which they work, the hours they work, and their personal preferences. However, in general, occupational therapy assistants tend to have a good work-life balance.

They typically work 40 hours per week, but may also work some overtime, especially if they are working in a hospital or clinic. They may also have to work on weekends or holidays and in shifts, depending on the needs of their patients.

Like any profession, achieving a balanced life as an occupational therapy assistant requires finding the right fit and actively managing personal and professional commitments. Prioritizing self-care and maintaining a healthy work-life balance can lead to a fulfilling and sustainable career in occupational therapy.

Should I become an Occupational Therapy Assistant?

Deciding whether to become an occupational therapy assistant depends on various factors specific to your interests, skills, and values. Before making such a decision you might want to ask yourself the following questions.

  • Do you have a passion for helping others and working with people?
  • Are you interested in healthcare and rehabilitation?
  • Are you comfortable with physical demands and assisting clients with mobility?
  • Do you enjoy collaborating with others in a healthcare setting?
  • Are you willing to pursue the necessary education and licensing?
  • Have you considered the work settings you are interested in?
  • Are you open to continuous learning and staying updated with the latest occupational therapy practices?

Answering these questions might feel overwhelming at first. However, if you do it properly it would give you enough insight to decide whether a career as an occupational therapy assistant is the right one for you.

One more thing you can do to help influence your decision is to speak to current occupational therapy assistants to get first-hand information about their experiences and how they transitioned through the ranks.

Careers Related to Occupational Therapy Assistant


Anita Akpuoforba

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