How Occupational Therapy is Used to Complement SLP

Many speech-language pathologists are quite familiar with the field of occupational therapy before they even enter their own profession. Often, SLPs have seriously considered going into occupational therapy before finally settling on speech-language pathology, and vice versa. The common thread between the two professions is clear: A desire to help patients improve their lives.

Occupational therapists achieve this through the concept of providing job training for the “job of living.” An outgrowth of moral improvement movements stretching as far back as the Enlightenment, the idea that even the most limited or disabled individuals could be taught to perform productive and beneficial tasks in society was revolutionary at the time.

It has since evolved to take on a more therapeutic function, helping in habilitation and rehabilitation designed to train patients how to engage in self-care and in basic life skills that might otherwise be difficult or overwhelming due to disease, injury or disability.

Speech-language pathologists have a more specialized field of care, but there are many ways in which the practice of speech-language pathology can benefit from the assistance of occupational therapists.

SLP and OT Involve Similar Therapy Approaches and Address Similar Issues

There is a considerable amount of overlap between the therapeutic functions of speech-language pathology and occupational therapy. Both SLPs and OTs may work with patients who have problems with:

  • Feeding
  • Swallowing
  • Cognition
  • Posture
  • Language learning difficulties

Even many of their treatment modalities are similar. The approaches that any SLP or OT might use in treating an eating problem rooted in myofunctional disorder, for example, will likely revolve around teaching the patient improved resting postures of the labial and lingual musculature, strengthening and retraining exercises for the affected muscles, and modification of eating habits and techniques to accommodate remaining disability. The tools and techniques might be utterly indistinguishable to most observers.

Where they differ is largely a matter of their therapeutic focus. An SLP will concentrate on issues of communication and problems arising from disabilities in the upper gastrointestinal tract. OTs are more interested in a big-picture perspective, analyzing the patient’s problems as a larger set of interrelated issues and developing treatments to account for each of them.

For example, an SLP working with an autistic child is likely to primarily be working on language-learning skills, attempting to teach the child how to form sounds correctly and build them into words and sentences.

An OT presented with the same patient might incorporate larger considerations of autistic disability into their treatment: they might recognize that the major obstacle to learning sounds is not necessarily a mechanical deficiency in the auditory or speech function, but rather a dramatically shortened attention span and social dysfunction. Their treatment options could extend well beyond teaching sound creation skills, instead verging into socialization exercises and sensory integration therapy.

It is in this big-picture perspective that occupational therapy has the most to offer to speech-language pathologists. No amount of sound drill repetition will correct a short attention span. These are called executive function skills—the ability to comply with training directed by specialists such as SLPs.

OTs also can help improve postural stability, which is critical for some swallowing and speech patients. They have a comprehensive understanding of how neuromusculature systems in the body tie together, where SLPs typically have a more specific focus on throat and face.

OTs can provide alternative or complementary treatments that enable SLPs to exercise their own expertise.

The complementary nature of the professions is reflected in the fact that many hospitals, clinics, and assisted-living facilities employ both. It is common for SLPs and OTs to work together closely on many cases, although SLP therapies tend to be delivered one-on-one while OTs are more likely to work with groups or more closely with PTs and other therapy providers.

Qualifications and Training for Occupational Therapists and Speech-Language Therapists

Another area where OTs and SLPs overlap is in their training and educational background. In fact, many might have followed identical paths up through their undergraduate degree programs, only making the final decision when the time comes to select a master’s program.

Both fields do require master’s degrees, at a minimum, for licensing and certification. SLPs have mandatory license programs they must comply with in all 50 states; OTs must be licensed in most states but have strong certification requirements, even those working in states where licensure is not required. OT standards of professional practice have been in place for more than 100 years.

More and more, practitioners in both fields are turning to doctoral-level education instead of stopping at a master’s degree. OTs are seeking out OTD programs, or Post Professional Doctor of Occupational Therapy degrees. SLPs, meanwhile, are increasingly obtaining a clinical doctorate in speech-language pathology.

In both fields, the difficulty and inconvenience of either identifying a local doctoral program or packing up and relocating to attend such a school is driving candidates to seek out online degree programs. These online courses can usually be time-shifted to some extent, so that they can fit in around existing work schedules, and they may cost less than traditional programs, particularly when relocation costs and out-of-state tuition are considered.

As the standard of care for both types of therapists increases, doctoral degrees are likely to become the norm rather than the exception in both professions.

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