Occupational Therapy: History, Types And Common Activities

The  occupational therapy is a type of health discipline that is used to help individuals improve their mental health or social integration through the creation, recovery or maintenance of significant activities for the person. Typically used to treat mental disorders or disabilities.

Occupational therapy is considered the only profession that helps people of all ages, classes and conditions to carry out the activities they want and need, through the therapeutic use of different daily occupations. In this way, the physical and mental health of the individuals on which it is used is promoted.

The objective of occupational therapy is, therefore, to prevent or help you live better with certain problems, such as incurable diseases, injuries, disabilities, or risky social situations. This can be carried out in various fields, and the activities used will differ depending on the characteristics of the patient.

Thus, for example, intervention with a disabled child to help him integrate into class will not be the same as with an elderly person who has to adapt to the cognitive changes caused by age. In this article we will study exactly what this discipline consists of and how it can help different types of people.


The use of different activities to promote the mental and physical health of patients is not new. Here we tell you how the development of occupational therapy has been, from its beginnings in Ancient Greece to the modern profession that is practiced today.

Occupational therapy in ancient times

Generally, it is considered that the first individual to use habits and activities to treat his patients was the Greek Asclepiades. This physicist, who lived around 100 BC, used tools such as exercise, massage, music or therapeutic baths to alleviate the symptoms of people with mental disorders.

In Ancient Rome, the case of at least one other person who used similar techniques is known: Celsus, who prescribed the use of music, conversation, travel and exercise to his patients to improve their psychological symptoms.

However, with the arrival of the Middle Ages and the decline of Western Civilization, the development of these methods came to a complete halt. In fact, from the fall of the Roman Empire until about the 18th century, there is no record of any individual using anything similar to occupational therapy.


With the arrival of new humanistic ideas, some doctors and thinkers became interested again in the use of activities to alleviate the suffering of people. People like Philippe Pinel and Johann Christian Reil helped change the treatment of patients to a more humane one.

Thus, before this time, when someone had psychological problems they were tied or chained so that they could not cause any harm (to themselves or others).

However, from the Enlightenment, alternatives began to be used, such as making them exercise, work or engage in leisure activities to alleviate their symptoms.

This development, however, took place mainly in Europe. In the United States, it took more time for interest in the therapeutic use of different activities to really become established. It was not until the beginning of the 20th century that occupational therapy began to be considered as a discipline to take into account.

First steps of occupational therapy

The first person who really promoted this discipline was Eleanor Clarke Slagle, who is considered the mother of this profession. She was one of the founders of the National Society for the Promotion of Occupational Therapy, an association that had great importance in the development of this form of help.

Slagle’s main idea was that habits are one of the best ways to improve a person’s well-being. To achieve the best results, it is necessary to find a balance between work, rest and leisure. This model, which was originally only used to treat the mentally ill, is applied today with a wide range of people.

During the beginnings of the discipline, his ideas were based on the importance of work, especially manual work. However, over the following decades, techniques related to other areas of life began to be included, in addition to being applied to many more individuals and situations.

After the First World War

The second decade of the 20th century marked a very important change for occupational therapy. Before World War I , its practitioners had focused on helping people with different types of mental illness. Now, however, they began to apply their techniques to other types of problems.

After the war, America was filled with soldiers who had to learn to live with disabilities, injuries, and trauma from the conflict.

Occupational therapists realized that their techniques could also help these people, and so they began to use them in other settings.

However, during the 1920s, fewer and fewer people were interested in practicing occupational therapy. To achieve greater public attention, many efforts were made to make it a recognized medical discipline during this decade and the next.

Formalization of occupational therapy

Before the 1920s and 1930s, this helping profession was not recognized as valid by most doctors. However, during these two decades several actions were carried out that helped in this regard. For example, the practices and the study curriculum were standardized, in addition to establishing admission criteria in schools.

Throughout the 20th century, a long way was traveled to bring occupational therapy to the point where it is now. First, courses in this discipline began to be included in different universities around the world; textbooks were written, and the subject matter covered continued to expand .

In the 1980s, a discipline called occupational science was founded. Its objective is to understand the scientific bases of the therapeutic effects of different activities; its development has been an enormous advance in legitimizing the effectiveness of these practices.

Today, occupational therapy is a discipline with millions of followers around the world. At present, its practitioners try to adapt to the new times and help an increasingly wide range of people, while continuing to develop techniques and theories.

What does it consist of?

Occupational therapists work with their clients in a systematic way through a sequence of actions that collectively are known as the “operational therapeutic process.” There are several versions of this process, but all of them include a pre-assessment, intervention, and results.

One of the most used processes in this discipline is the “Occupational Therapy Practice Framework” (OTPF). It is divided into two parts: a first analysis in which the context and problems of the patient are observed, and a plan designed by the therapist to help each individual in a personalized way.


Depending on the types of patients being treated, the areas in which the attention of professionals is focused, or the techniques used, many different versions of occupational therapy can be found. Here we will see some of the most common.

Mental health

Occupational therapy aimed at improving the mental health of patients was the first to emerge, and today it remains one of the most demanded branches. The patients of this discipline can suffer all kinds of psychological problems, which are tried to be treated with the formation of habits.

Some of the most common disorders treated by this branch are schizophrenia , depression , eating disorders, autism, ADHD , or anxiety disorders . However, almost anyone with psychological problems can benefit from the techniques developed here.

Physical Health

Another area in which modern occupational therapy focuses is the promotion of healthy habits, prevention of diseases and treatment of those that cannot be cured.

Thus, experts in this area try to reduce the physical difficulties suffered by their patients due to any physical problem.


Some occupational therapists specialize in helping older people cope with the changes that appear at this stage in their lives.

Aging can be very hard; For this reason, the formation of healthy habits and participation in meaningful activities is essential for the well-being of these people.

Childhood and adolescence

On the other hand, the first stages of life are also fraught with challenges and difficulties that not all people are capable of adequately facing.

Occupational therapy can also be used to help children and adolescents who are struggling, whether due to innate differences, social exclusion, family problems, or other factors.


Finally, one of the most common areas that occupational therapy deals with is that which is responsible for helping people who have suffered a serious physical or psychological injury to rejoin society as active members of it.

This branch, for example, helps individuals who have suffered traffic accidents, strokes, who have lost a limb or who have lost the mobility of their legs.

The challenges these people face are very tough, and therefore developing healthy habits can be very helpful.

Common activities in occupational therapy

Depending on the needs of each patient, a large number of different activities can be carried out to achieve the proposed objectives. Next we will see some of the most common or interesting.

Develop social skills

For various reasons, many people find it difficult to relate appropriately to others. This may have to do with a developmental disorder, such as autism; or it may simply be due to innate or learned factors that are not considered pathological.

Occupational therapy can help fill these gaps in many different ways. For example, the person can be helped to form a social circle by participating in various group activities. Belonging to a sports team, for example, is usually very effective in this regard.

Various techniques such as video viewing, role-playing or assertiveness practice can also be used  to improve the person’s social skills before they begin to interact with others.

Take care of health

One of the habits that have the greatest impact on all aspects of our life is taking care of health. This is why occupational therapists often work in this direction with their patients, helping them develop a sustainable and feel-good lifestyle.

In this sense, for example, it is possible that the therapy involves actions such as developing a training plan, choosing a healthy diet to follow, or planning the hours of sleep so that the person has adequate rest.

Another of the most used activities in this field is yoga, which in addition to being very beneficial for health, also brings countless positive aspects to the emotional sphere of the person.


Writing is one of the most used activities in occupational therapy for various reasons; But above all, this is because it can be used to achieve a large number of different objectives.

For example, for people who have trouble understanding their own feelings , writing can help them get more in touch with their emotions . For others, putting their thoughts on paper can be key to learning to manage what happens to them appropriately.

Even in the case of elderly people, writing about their past experiences is usually very useful when it comes to improving certain cognitive functions such as memory . Finally, this tool can also help combat certain psychological illnesses such as depression or anxiety.


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  3. “What is occupational therapy?” in: Occupational Therapy Australia. Retrieved on: November 01, 2018 from Occupational Therapy Australia: otaus.com.au.
  4. “Best occupational therapy activities for adults” in: Bella Vista Health. Retrieved on: November 01, 2018 from Bella Vista Health: bellavistahealth.com.
  5. “Occupational Therapy” in: Wikipedia. Retrieved on: November 01, 2018 from Wikipedia: en.wikipedia.org.

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