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5 Steps to Becoming an Occupational Therapist Assistant

Explore the career requirements for occupational therapist assistants. Get the facts about job duties, education and licensure requirements, and job growth to determine if this is the right career for you.

What Is an Occupational Therapist Assistant?

An occupational therapist assistant is someone who works under the supervision of the occupational therapist to help patients with disabilities perform exercises to help them gain or regain basic skills. They may help patients stretch, lead play activities or teach patients how to use special equipment that will assist patients with their daily living. Occupational therapist assistants need an associate's degree from an accredited occupational therapy assistant program. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, as of 2014, 40% of occupational therapy assistants worked in the offices of physical therapists, occupational therapists, speech pathologists and audiologists, while 18% worked in nursing care facilities.

Degree Required Associate's degree
Training Required 16 weeks clinical experience
Education Field of Study Occupational therapist assistant
Licensure and/or Certification Most states require occupational therapist assistants to be licensed and/or registered
Job Growth (2018-2028) 21%*
Median Salary (2018) $60,220*

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

What Does an Occupational Therapist Assistant Do?

As an occupational therapist assistant, you might participate in the development of treatment plans. Your other duties include evaluating the capabilities of patients to manage daily life; demonstrating exercises; observing patients as they perform exercises; recommending adjustments to treatment based on observations; monitoring changes in patient behavior or attitude; providing encouragement to patients throughout their treatment; and providing oral and written reports to supervisors about patients' progress.

Step 1: Build an Educational Foundation in High School

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics recommends that aspiring occupational therapist assistants take classes in biology and health education while in high school. In addition, you could get real-world experience by volunteering at the office of an occupational therapist or a related healthcare facility, such as a physical therapy clinic or a nursing home. Not only would this help you gain the knowledge and skills you need for future career success, but it would also demonstrate to colleges that you are serious about becoming an occupational therapist assistant, which could improve your chances for admission.

Step 2: Earn an Associate's Degree

In 2014, O*Net OnLine reported that about 82% of occupational therapist assistants held associate's degrees (www.onetonline.org). Associate's degree programs are widely available from community and technical colleges. Occupational therapy assistant programs train you to interact with patients as an adjunct care provider. You will learn to analyze patients' conditions and perform therapeutic techniques. Classes may include anatomy and physiology, medical terminology, movement dynamics and rehabilitation theory. Programs must include at least 16 weeks of fieldwork.

Step 3: Meet State Regulatory Requirements

In 2015, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported that almost all U.S. states and the District of Columbia required occupational therapist assistants to hold licensure, registration or certification (www.bls.gov). Licensing standards vary from state to state. Some states may require you to complete an occupational therapy assistant program, while others may require you to complete a program and pass an exam. States requiring certification typically use the credential offered by the National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy (NBCOT). The Certified Occupational Therapy Assistant (COTA) designation available from NBCOT requires passing an exam that consists of 200 questions covering patient assessment, intervention techniques and professional standards. If you work for an early intervention program or in a school you may also have to complete additional education courses or obtain an education certificate.

Step 4: Pursue a Job

Health practitioners, hospitals and nursing homes are the leading employers of occupational therapy assistants, according to the BLS. You can also find opportunities with community care centers, government agencies and home healthcare providers. As of 2018, employment of assistants was estimated at about 42,660. Employment was projected to rise to 58,300 from 2018-2028. Improvements in medical technology and growth in the elderly population will contribute to demand for your services. The BLS reported that as of May 2018, occupational therapist assistants earned a median salary of $60,220.

Step 5: Advance Your Career

In large therapy practices or departments, you could rise to supervisory or administrative positions. You could transition to the role of an educator, helping the elderly learn health risk reduction techniques or teaching classes for OTA students. Finally, you could earn a bachelor's and master's degree to become a full occupational therapist.

What Are Some Related Alternative Careers?

Physical therapist assistants perform some tasks that are similar to the work of occupational therapist assistants. They assist patients with exercises and activities that are designed to help them regain motor skills after illness or injury. Like occupational therapist assistants, physical therapy assistants need an associate's degree.