Autism specialists are trained and certified to work with autistic individuals in a variety of settings. In this article, you’ll learn more about the roles and responsibilities of autism specialists and how they can help children with autism overcome their sensory, social, and emotional challenges.
What Is an Autism Specialist?
An autism spectrum disorder specialist (ASDS) is a person who is trained to work with children and adults diagnosed with autism. An autism specialist can provide a range of educational and therapeutic services, in addition to designing and developing treatment plans to address the symptoms of autism. Treatments may include everything from speech therapy and sensory therapy to social skills training, physical therapy, and the use of assistive technology.
Autism specialists work together with other professionals and educators to evaluate, treat, plan, and manage challenging behaviors. They also monitor the progress and review the areas that need improvement for an autistic person to reach their intended goals. Because every person with autism is different and faces unique challenges, treatments provided by autism specialists are customized to suit the patient’s individual needs.
Besides improving outcomes for the autistic child at home and in the classroom, an autism specialist’s roles include:
- Counseling families about any problems they are currently experiencing
- Holding regular meetings with families to discuss the child’s current needs
- Referring to families for further support if needed
- Helping families of autistic children fight for their rights and making sure they are being treated with equality.
It’s important to keep in mind that autism spectrum disorder specialists are not medical doctors. This means that they don’t prescribe medication or diagnose medical conditions. However, autism specialists often work with a team of healthcare professionals when treating autistic individuals in clinical settings.
Becoming a certified autism specialist takes years of training and experience. Keep on reading to learn more about the ASDS education requirements.
What Type of Training Do Autism Specialists Go Through?
Most autism specialist positions require a master’s degree in applied behavior analysis (ABA). Before getting a master’s degree, the candidate needs to obtain a bachelor’s degree in either applied behavior analysis or a related field such as:
- Early childhood education
- Special education
- Educational psychology
- Social work
Moreover, graduate programs in applied behavioral analysis typically include gaining practical experience through an internship in a healthcare or school setting.
Some autism specialist entry-level positions, such as assistant behavior analyst and working with autistic individuals in residential care and supported living environments, require only a bachelor’s degree or a bachelor’s degree accompanied with specialized training in treating autism spectrum disorder.
In the course of their studies, autism specialists learn about the topics such as:
- Child psychology
- Theories related to the autism spectrum disorder
- Teaching methods for special education
- Special communication methods
- Behavior analysis
- Autism treatment methods
- Crisis intervention.
Some employers may require a teaching degree or certification as well as the Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) certification to work as an autism spectrum disorder specialist. State license to practice behavioral therapy may also be required by some states.
Educators and licensed professionals who work with autistic children and adults are eligible to attend the autism specialist certification program offered by the International Board of Credentialing and Continuing Education Standards (IBCCES) and obtain the Autism Certificate. This certification is reserved for professionals who have been working in the field for at least two years and who have a minimum of a master’s degree. It must be renewed every two years.
The autism specialist certification program covers the following topics:
- Identifying typical behaviors and characteristics of a person diagnosed with autism
- Using applied behavioral analysis techniques to help manage and change the behaviors of autistic children
- Identifying appropriate evidence-based strategies for working with children with autism
- Selecting the best strategies to suit the individual needs of each child
- Understanding federal and state regulations regarding the education of children with autism
- The history of the terms related to autism spectrum disorder.
Aside from an in-depth knowledge of managing autism spectrum disorder, autism specialists must also have the following personal skills:
- Passion for working with autistic children
- Excellent communication skills
- Excellent analytical and judgment skills
- Ability to build a good relationship with children and their families in order to assess the type of help they need
- Active listening skills to ensure that they fully understand the challenges the child is dealing with and to be able to offer tailored solutions
- Complex problem-solving skills to ensure they’re providing the best possible treatment to each child
- Creativity to use in games and activities
- Ability to provide encouragement in all areas of therapy.
Where Do Autism Specialists Work?
Autism specialists work with autistic children both in groups and in one-on-one settings. They can provide therapy or assistance in a classroom, private counseling, medical facilities, residential centers, or at home.
An autism specialist can help reduce your child’s challenging behaviors such as frustrated outbursts, anger, and aggression, while at the same time increasing positive behaviors like focusing, following instructions, and communicating effectively with other people.
Working in an educational setting
Your child with autism spectrum disorder may be placed in a general education classroom where they get special assistance from an aide, a special education classroom, or a special class where they receive additional help several hours per day. Autism specialists can work in any of these settings either as assistants, general education teachers who offer specialized instruction for children with autism, or as special education teachers.
In a classroom setting, autism specialists not only help autistic students improve their academic skills such as arithmetic, spelling, and handwriting, but they also facilitate their interaction with peers and help them deal with challenging social situations. Their work also includes planning lessons and games that involve both autistic and other students and monitor their interactions.
In addition to assisting autistic children, autism specialists also work with neurotypical children in the same classroom. They may teach them about the challenges that autistic students face and what they can do to improve peer interactions. For example, autism specialists can teach students how to model behaviors for autistic children and how to interact with them in a way that promotes positive behaviors.
Providing in-home therapy
In-home treatment for autism has benefits not only for children but also for their families. An autism specialist is someone who understands the child’s unique needs and behaviors and is equipped to deal with them. Having an autism specialist who works with the child at home allows parents to learn new skills and techniques for managing their child’s needs. In addition, with in-home therapy, parents and other family members are able to actively participate in the therapy themselves.
Salary of an Autism Specialist
The salary of autism specialists depends on their educational background and years of experience. The typical entry-level salary of an autism specialist is $29,000 per year.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, autism specialists who work as special education teachers earn a median salary ranging from $55,840 per year for preschool teachers to $61,420 per year for teachers at the secondary school level. The median annual salary of autism specialists who work as clinical, counseling, and school psychologists is $82,180 per year.
Now that we know what an autism spectrum disorder specialist does, let’s see what are the benefits of having a specialist work with your autistic child.
How Can an Autism Specialist Help Your Child?
If your child has been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, you will want to use as many resources as possible to help them overcome their challenges and improve their quality of life. A certified autism specialist can help with a range of sensory, social, and emotional difficulties typical for the condition.
Most children with autism spectrum disorder are to some degree affected by sensory overload. Crowds, excessive noise, bright lights, and strong tastes and smells may feel overwhelming and disruptive because they provide more sensory input than the child’s brain can process.
An autism specialist will show your child what to do when they start to feel overwhelmed and help them establish effective self-soothing strategies. Different strategies are effective for different children, so the specialist will work together with your child to find out the best coping method. This can be anything from practicing deep breathing, counting to ten, using sensory toys or fidgets, or taking a walk. They will start by practicing these strategies together so that your child has a concrete plan in place that they can use as soon as they experience a sensory overload.
Moreover, an autism specialist will show your child what are the appropriate responses to sensations overload, also known as sensory modulations. These responses will allow your child to learn appropriate behaviors, maintain focus, and avoid strong emotional reactions. At the same time, the specialist will work on decreasing negative behaviors, including angry outbursts and meltdowns.
Children with autism often show little or no interest in the world around them and have a limited understanding of other people’s feelings. As a consequence, they may experience social interactions as unpredictable and frightening. For example, they may not understand the purpose of greeting someone, waiting for their turn to speak, showing facial expressions, or maintaining eye contact.
What’s more, children with autism often have inflexible behaviors and interests that make it difficult to form and maintain friendships and may lead to social isolation, for example:
- Repeating the same actions or movements over and over again, such as flapping hands, rocking, twirling, or spinning objects
- Following strict routines
- Unusual attachments to objects
- Lining objects and toys up or arranging them in a certain order
- Having very restricted areas of interest.
An applied behavioral analyst will work with your child to change these behaviors, for example, teach them how to greet others, take turns, make eye contact, or pay attention to the person who is talking to them. Certified autism specialists will help your child develop social skills in a way that they can interact with their classmates and others around them a little easier. This type of support requires careful planning and a fully personalized approach.
Children with autism are generally resistant to change and prefer familiar situations and activities. They may struggle to control their emotions in new and unpredictable situations and transition to another activity or setting. Any disruption in their routines could cause frustration, anger, and unusually intense emotional reactions compared to their neurotypical peers.
Changes in routines or in the environment that result in high levels of stress and anxiety can affect the child both psychologically and physically. Anxiety disorders, including obsessive compulsive disorder, phobias, and social anxieties, are the most common comorbid conditions in children with autism.
Teaching autistic children how to recognize and manage emotions can help them understand and respond better to others. Autism specialists encourage emotional development in autistic children by using methods such as sensory and speech therapy, games, and exercises. They work on emotional skills like emotional labels and shared attention, so that your child can generalize what they learn in therapy sessions to their everyday lives.
A certified autism specialist can also help autistic children manage their emotions in the classroom setting where having a meltdown could severely impact their learning and that of other students. Having dedicated support will help your child feel safe while they are doing their schoolwork.
We’ve seen that most autism specialists hold a degree in applied behavioral analysis (ABA). But what exactly does this type of therapy consist of and why is it so effective for treating autism?
What is ABA therapy?
ABA stands for applied behavior analysis, a type of therapy that focuses on changing unwanted behaviors while at the same time reinforcing desirable ones. Developed by psychologist Ivar Lovaas in the 1970s, ABA therapy has been successfully used to help children with autism and related developmental disorders ever since.
ABA therapy can help children with autism build and strengthen social and communication skills, for example:
- Improve their language skills
- Help them acquire basic academic and pre-academic skills
- Increase their attention, focus, and memory
- Teach them to follow directions and instructions
- Help them understand social cues such as facial expressions and body language
- Teach them how to initiate conversations and respond to questions in an appropriate way
- Reduce problematic behaviors such as aggressivity, anger outbursts, and meltdowns.
The success of ABA therapy depends on two main factors: personalization and persistence.
An autism specialist has to identify specific areas where each child needs improvement so that they can design and develop an effective treatment plan and ensure the child’s progress. When devising a treatment plan, autism specialists must take into consideration factors such as the age of the child, their level of functioning, individual needs and preferences, and particular skills they need help with.
Applied behavior analysis therapy is a rigorous teaching method that can be very effective, however, results don’t appear overnight. Dedicating enough time to therapy is essential for the success of ABA therapy. Most children with autism will benefit from an intensive, ongoing approach to teaching appropriate behaviors and changing the unwanted ones. They may need anywhere from 20 to 40 hours per week for two years or more to show significant improvement.
How does ABA therapy work?
Applied behavior analysis therapists use a range of positive reinforcement techniques to reward positive behaviors. When a desirable behavior is followed by a special treat or activity, the child is more likely to repeat the action in the future. Over time, this method leads to positive behavioral changes in children diagnosed with autism.
Typically, ABA therapy is based on breaking down essential skills into small, concrete steps. It then builds toward more significant changes in functioning and independence levels. Therapy sessions may include a combination of play, direct instructions, various activities, adaptive skills training, as well as parental guidance. ABA therapy offers customized treatment based on each child’s individual strengths and weaknesses.
How successful is ABA therapy?
Over the last several years, there has been a significant increase in the use of ABA therapy as a means of developing social, sensory, emotional, and other skills in autistic children. There is no doubt that this is a challenging and time-consuming process, however, with time, effort, and patience, many children will ultimately learn to be independent and function in social settings.
ABA therapy is currently considered the most effective form of autism treatment and has been endorsed by the U.S. Surgeon General. With early intervention, close to 50% of children on the autism spectrum reach a development level at which they are indistinguishable from their neurotypical peers, while the general improvement rate of using ABA therapy is over 90%.
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