How to Become an Autism Spectrum Disorder Specialist

Learn how to become an autism spectrum disorder specialist. Research the education requirements, training, licensure information and experience you will need to start a career as an autism spectrum disorder specialist.

Do I Want to Be an Autism Spectrum Disorder Specialist?

Autism spectrum disorder specialists are behavioral modification counselors who provide therapeutic, educational or medical services to adults and children with neurobehavioral disorders on the autism spectrum. This occupation requires specialists to manage a caseload of multiple clients, some of whom may be experiencing stressful situations. Depending on their professional qualifications, autism spectrum disorder specialists can work in schools, healthcare settings, public and private agencies, and private practice. Daytime, evening, weekend, and on-call shifts may be required.

Job Requirements

Individuals entering this field typically have at least a master's degree in psychology, clinical counseling, social work or another related field. Most professionals who specialize in these disorders are licensed by the state. The following table describes the core requirements for a career as an autism spectrum disorder specialist.

Common Requirements
Degree Level Master's degree*
Degree Field(s) Psychology or a related field*
Licensure and/or Certification State license to practice counseling is required; certifications in mental health disciplines may be required by employer**
Experience Typically at least two years of postgraduate experience***
Key Skills Knowledge of psychology, therapy and counseling; active listening, social perceptiveness, speaking, service orientation, reading comprehension, judgment, decision making, complex problem solving, coordination, critical thinking and writing skills****
Computer Skills Databases, medical software, presentation software****
Additional Requirements Some positions may require an extensive background check, a driver's license and/or first aid training***

Sources: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, **The State of Texas and the Behavior Analyst Certification Board (BACB), ***Survey of job postings in December 2012, ****O*Net Online.

Step 1: Obtain a Bachelor's Degree

Autism spectrum disorder specialists, like other behavioral counselors, typically begin their education by acquiring a bachelor's degree in psychology, social work, special education or a related field. An undergraduate degree program in psychology may include courses in child development, cognitive science, speech-language pathology and neurology, while a degree program in social work emphasizes the study of human behavior. Special education students can expect to take classes that explain how humans learn and how to teach individuals with learning disabilities. A bachelor's degree is typically a mandatory prerequisite for those wishing to enter a master's degree program.

Success Tip:

  • Get experience in the field. Most positions for autism spectrum disorder specialists require a substantial amount of experience working with individuals on the autism spectrum. Those who begin working with such individuals while still in college may find it easier to gain employment after graduation. Sometimes such an opportunity may be incorporated into an undergraduate degree program as a field practicum. Students may also gain experience by volunteering their time with social services organizations. Practicums and internships may be available to both undergraduates and graduates, and some people find it advantageous to take more than one over the course of their undergraduate and graduate careers.

Step 2: Pursue Advanced Education

Autism spectrum disorder specialists commonly hold an advanced degree, such as a master's degree or doctorate in applied behavioral analysis. Participants in such a degree program typically take classes in applied behavioral analysis methodology, the science of learning, intervention methods and measurement methods. Graduate programs in applied behavioral analysis typically require that students acquire field experience through an internship or practicum.

Success Tip:

  • Complete a certificate program. In addition to advanced degrees, certificate programs in autism spectrum disorders are available. These are commonly post-baccalaureate and take 1-2 years to complete. The coursework within these programs covers educational, therapeutic and communication methods for working with autistic children and adults. In some cases, credits completed in an autism spectrum disorder certificate program can be transferred into a master's degree program in education or special education.

Step 3: Become Licensed

Most psychologists and social workers require a state license. Candidates must pass an exam - usually a standardized test. Other requirements may vary by state. State licensing requirements for behavioral counselors and therapists vary widely. In some cases, they depend on a professional's specialty and work setting. There may be additional requirements for school counselors, including a master's degree and some teaching experience.

Step 4: Attain Certification

Psychologists or behavioral therapists can acquire the Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) designation, which is offered by the Behavior Analyst Certification Board (BACB). Many employers require that job applicants have the BCBA designation. Students pursuing this certification must have completed 225 hours of classroom instruction in such content areas as ethics, behavioral assessment, intervention strategies, managing behavioral data and measurement of behavior. Applicants must also complete 1500 hours of supervised field work and then pass an exam. The BCBA certification must be renewed once a year and certification holders must be re-certified once every three years. Certification holders must also complete 36 hours of continuing education every three years.

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