I was 23 years old and just a few months out of college when I first heard the term “occupational therapy”. Why had I never heard of this crazy amazing profession before?!
Let me back up.
I grew up a gymnast. A competitive gymnast. I was injured a lot and I got a lot of physical therapy. People always told me I should become a PT because I had so much experience as a patient. But I didn’t want to be a PT. It didn’t excite me. When I was in middle school, I decided I wanted to become a pediatrician when I grew up. I loved working with kids. I loved helping people. I loved teaching. And I liked math and science. Pediatrician? It sounded perfect!
Right before I started college, I shadowed a friend’s pediatrician mom for a whole day of work. It was not at all what I expected. Lots of boring runny noses, writing prescriptions, and quickly checking on screaming babies in the nursery. Kind of a humdrum day. I wanted excitement. And I wanted to help people. Really help people. It’s not that pediatricians don’t help people. They absolutely do. But it wasn’t what I had in mind when I pictured myself working with kids for a career.
I entered college at UCLA with an Undeclared major (as many do) and a full-ride gymnastics scholarship (those are a little harder to come by), with the intent to end up in a pre-med major. I took all the classes you’re supposed to take during those first two quarters. But I quickly realized that this pre-med path just wasn’t for me. I didn’t want to be burying my nose in books for hours upon hours each night simply to memorize formulas and solve equations. I wanted to learn about people. Real people. During my third quarter at UCLA I took an Intro to Psychology class and found it to be really interesting. By the end of my first year of college I was still Undeclared and I had given up on the dream of becoming a pediatrician. I was super bummed. There had to be something better out there that would fit my dream, my passion, my talents.
At the beginning of my second year of college, I took an Education class. It was amazing. I’ll never forget that class — The Social Psychology of Higher Education. The professor was personable and funny. The teaching style was engaging. The group work was invigorating. And we even got to create and conduct our own research project! I was hooked.
After taking a few more Psych and Education class, I decided to major in Psychology and minor in Education. Though I could never answer the ever-dreaded question, “So, what are you going to do with that?”, all I knew was that I had found an area of study I loved and I was going to pursue it with passion. As part of my Psych major, I developed a serious interest in the area of Sport Psychology. (Remember? Competitive gymnast here.) I took all the classes that were offered, I became an undergraduate student teaching assistant for all the classes that were offered, I assisted with research in the Sport Psych lab for several quarters, and I even attended the national Sport Psychology conference during my last year of college. I was convinced that I wanted to apply to a PhD program and become a Sport Psychologist. How cool would it be to work at the Olympic Training Center?
However, as with my former dream of becoming a pediatrician, I discovered that life as a Sport Psychologist isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. As mentioned previously, you have to get a PhD and, after all that hard work, it’s actually really hard to get a job. Very few actually get that “dream job” of working with athletes. Most end up doing research and teaching at universities. That’s not what I wanted to do!
Frustrated by the fact that my passion for educating myself and helping others didn’t seem to exist in the “perfect” profession, I began investigating what other careers were out there. I wanted to find something that would capitalize on my love for teaching and learning, my love for working with kids, and my desire to help others. I looked into Social Work. I looked into Counseling. I looked into Educational Psychology. I looked into getting a PhD in Education. I looked into Teaching. I volunteered in a low-income Los Angeles elementary school as part of one of my Education classes for my minor. I looked into Special Education. I looked into working for a non-profit that helped children who were suffering as child soldiers in Northern Uganda. I looked into the Peace Corps. I realized I wanted to teach but didn’t want to be tied to a classroom. But I wanted to be able to support classroom teachers so they could help their students learn better. That much I knew. I just didn’t know what that looked like in real life. Hmmm… Nothing really seemed to fit, and I didn’t want to settle.
A few weeks after graduating with a Bachelor’s in Psychology and a minor in Education, I took a part-time job coaching gymnastics at a gym with an ocean view and friends I had met while coaching summer gymnastics camps during college. Two months into the job we attended our region’s annual conference, which is kind of like continuing ed for gymnastics coaches. At that conference, one of my co-workers attended a session led by a woman who talked about gymnastics and kids with special needs. She told me the session was really good and that this lady was going to be doing another session after the lunch break. I told her I was in!
I don’t remember the exact title of the session, but I do remember this — she was a Reading Specialist who explained how there are certain movements in gymnastics that are actually very good for the brain development of children with learning disabilities. She said she had worked as part of a team to create a gymnastics-based program to help kids with special learning needs. It was called Rolling Into Reading. She had charts and pictures and lesson plans. All of that was cool, but the coolest thing to me was the fact that she talked about neuroscience. She talked about the brain. And its structures. And what happens in the brain when kids have trouble learning. And how gymnastics can actually target some of those things in the brain.
She talked about vision and auditory processing and how that relates to reading. She talked about the sensory systems and how they influence a child’s ability to focus. She talked about laterality and directionality and how that relates to reading and writing and letter reversals. She talked about balance and the vestibular system (which is responsible for our sense of movement and balance — kind of a big one in gymnastics and I had never heard of it!). She talked about the importance of core strength and postural control for good writing skills. At one point during the session, she mentioned in passing that sometimes kids with learning disabilities work with occupational therapists, and that OTs have all of the knowledge just mentioned and that they use a lot of the same types of movements and activities in therapy that we use in gymnastics.
I was ecstatic. I knew at that very moment that OT was something I HAD to do. It was as if everything became instantly crystal clear. As soon as the session was over, I introduced myself to the speaker and asked her for more information about occupational therapy. She suggested I find a local pediatric clinic in my area where I could observe and volunteer.
As soon as we returned from the conference, I found a clinic that was less than two miles from my apartment (thank you, Google!) and was able to allow me to observe and volunteer as an aide. Every minute of those 100+ observation hours confirmed to me that occupational therapy was absolutely-without-a-doubt the profession I had been searching for.
I won’t bore you with the details but, long story short, I ended up teaching Rolling Into Reading at both my gymnastics center and at that pediatric therapy clinic, I taught small-group sensory-motor labs at the pediatric therapy clinic using the Ready Bodies Learning Minds program (under the supervision of a therapist), I taught one-on-one gymnastics lessons for several children with autism, I took the pre-requisite courses necessary to apply to OT school and, nearly two years after serendipitously attending that conference session on gymnastics and children with special needs, my husband and I moved up to the Los Angeles area where I began my Master’s program in Occupational Therapy at the University of Southern California.
During my time at USC, I was accepted into a competitive pediatric cohort training program that lasted my entire second year of OT school. I had the opportunity to use my knowledge as an OT student to present two sessions at the very gymnastics conference where I first learned about occupational therapy — one session was about teaching developmentally appropriate gymnastics lessons and the other was about teaching gymnastics for children with special needs. Additionally, as part of my student project for my final pediatric internship, I created a program and presentation that taught therapists how to use gymnastics therapeutically as part of clinic-based therapy. After a fast but full two years, I graduated from OT school with a Master’s degree, a new job in pediatrics, and my first baby on the way. And less than one year after that, MamaOT.com was born.
I have received several emails from people who are contemplating whether they should go into the field of occupational therapy. Some think they are too old and it’s too late for them. Some have a disability they fear may keep them out of the profession. And many didn’t find out about OT until after college and now they wonder if their degree (Yay, Art History, Sociology, Math, and Anthropology) will even allow them to apply to OT school at all.
Here’s the deal.
If you know what occupational therapy is and you have the skills needed to be able to succeed as an OT, the rest is just details. I share my story here to encourage you. There is no “one perfect path” to becoming an occupational therapist. Diversity is valued!
If you are personally wondering whether OT is the profession for you, I have two suggestions for you:
- Read my free e-book The Most Important Things You Need to Know about Becoming an Occupational Therapy Practitioner: A Guide for Prospective Students. It will likely answer not only the questions you already have, but also questions you didn’t know you needed to think about. You can access it in my e-book launch post or by simply completing the form below.
- If, after you’ve read through my e-book, you still have questions, shoot me an email at christie [at] mamaot [dot] com and I can try to help you hash things out.
For those of you who are already a part of this great profession, how did you get your start? Everyone’s story is unique, and I would love to hear yours! Perhaps your story will motivate or encourage someone else…and that’s awesome.