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Occupational Therapy vs. Speech Therapy: What’s the Difference?

Many speech-language pathologists (SLPs) are familiar with the field of occupational therapy before they even enter their own profession. Often, SLPs have seriously considered going into occupational therapy (OT) before deciding to pursue speech-language pathology and vice versa.

Although there are differences between the two professions, the common thread is clear: a desire to help patients improve their lives.

Learn more about speech and occupational therapy below, including the similarities and differences between the two career paths.

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What Is an Occupational Therapist?

Occupational therapists (OTs) help individuals do the things they want and need to do through the therapeutic use of daily activities. By promoting health and preventing or bettering disability, illness, or injury, OTs help individuals of all ages live fulfilling lives.

Occupational therapists provide job training for the “job of living.” They help train individuals on how to engage in self-care and in basic life skills that might otherwise be difficult or overwhelming due to disability, illness, or injury.

Services provided by OTs help individuals improve their ability to perform daily activities and reach their goals and may include:

  • Reviewing medical history
  • Performing individualized evaluations
  • Developing customized interventions
  • Demonstrating exercises
  • Educating families and employers
  • Assessing outcomes

What Is a Speech-Language Pathologist?

Speech-language pathologists (SLPs) are communication experts who work with individuals to help provide solutions to communication barriers. The primary goal of SLPs is to improve individuals’ ability to communicate using therapeutic practices.

SLPs focus on speech-related issues such as:

  • Feeding and swallowing
  • Fluency
  • Language
  • Social communication
  • Speech sounds
  • Voice

Becoming a speech-language pathologist is a specialized career that is dedicated to helping others. It requires specialized education that can be gained either in-person or online.

Can Occupational Therapists Help With Speech?

This is a common question about occupational therapy and the answer is yes. While speech-language pathologists focus solely on communication, occupational therapists often incorporate speech-language therapies into their practice. Speech is a goal of many patients looking to improve their quality of life and work on their “job of living.”

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.

How Do Speech Pathologists Work With Occupational Therapists?

There is a considerable amount of overlap between speech and occupational therapy and the two professionals work with each other in several applications. The complementary nature of careers for speech-language pathologists and occupational therapists is reflected in the fact that many hospitals, clinics, and assisted-living facilities employ both.

It’s 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 work more closely with PTs and other therapy providers.

Both SLPs and OTs may work with patients who have problems with:

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

Many of their treatment modalities are similar as well. 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 the remaining disability.

What Is the Difference Between Speech and Occupational Therapy?

Although some of the treatments may be similar, there are some primary differences between OT vs. speech therapyincluding differences in:

  • Therapeutic focus
  • Required education and training
  • Job outlook and salary

Therapeutic Focus

Where they differ is largely a matter of the profession’s therapeutic focus.

Speech-language pathology is focused on issues of communication and problems arising from disabilities in the upper gastrointestinal tract. Meanwhile, occupational speech therapy is focused on the big-picture perspective, analyzing the individual’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 work 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’s 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 neuromuscular systems in the body tie together, where SLPs typically have a more specific focus on the throat and face.

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

Required Education and Training

Another area where speech and occupational therapy overlaps is in education and training. 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 require master’s degrees for licensing and certification
  • SLPs have mandatory license programs they must comply with within 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

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.

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

Job Outlook and Salary

The good news is, both SLPs and OTs are in-demand professions and salaries for SLPs and OTs are attractive.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median pay for SLPs is $80,480 per year, and SLP employment is projected to grow 25% between 2019 and 2029, which is much faster than the average for all occupations.

Meanwhile, the median pay for OTs is slightly higher at $86,280 per year and OT employment is projected to grow 16% between 2019 and 2029.

2020 US Bureau of Labor Statistics job market trends and salary figures for SLPs and OTs represent national data not school-specific information. Conditions in your area may vary. Data accessed August 2021.

Pursuing Speech and Occupational Therapy Degrees

Pursuing a career as a speech-language pathologist or an occupational therapist is a rewarding endeavor. When choosing between the two professions, it’s imperative to understand the differences between speech and occupational therapy and how each career path aligns with your goals.

If making a difference in the lives of individuals while being able to work in diverse settings is appealing, a career as an SLP may be for you. Whether you already hold an undergraduate degree in a related field or are a college graduate looking to transition, a master’s degree in communicative sciences and disorders can prepare you for a rewarding career as an SLP.

Visit our career center to learn more about careers for speech pathologists.

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