Autism is a developmental disorder that leads to social or behavioral problems. According to the Autism Research Institute, as of March 2012, one in 88 children in the U.S. is diagnosed with an autistic spectrum disorder, or ASD. ASDs encompass a wide range of conditions and mental abilities, but usually include impaired social and communicative skills, making it difficult for the child to form relationships, use language figuratively or adapt behavior to circumstance. Helping a child to cope with being different from other people in everyday life demands special understanding, skills and personal qualities. You can use these interests and abilities to work with autistic children within various careers.
Special education teachers work in public and private schools, in children’s centers and as home tutors. Depending on their ability levels, autistic children may attend either mainstream or special classes, and they often need intensive individual tuition. You work alongside other teachers to provide that individual attention and adapt lesson plans to the child’s needs. You may need to consult parents, counselors and therapists on drawing up an Individualized Education Program and transition plans.
To teach autistic children, you need a bachelor’s degree in or including special education plus a state teaching license. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, demand for special education teachers is high and growing, and the median salary in May 2010 was $53,200. [see ref 2]
Other professional careers involving autistic children in education include educational psychology and school counseling. School psychologists assess learning and behavioral problems, and help the students and families deal with them. You would need a master’s, specialist or doctoral degree in school psychology, plus licensure/certification from the National Association of School Psychologists. School counselors help students develop social skills, which autistic children find particularly difficult. You need a master’s degree and a state license to be a counselor.
Teacher’s aides support the class teacher as required, often providing extra one-on-one coaching and helping children join in activities throughout the school day. You can be a teacher’s aide without previous training, as you learn mainly on the job.
Early intervention is important in helping autistic children, and if you want to work with children up to 5 years old, you could consider becoming a playgroup leader, children’s center assistant or private nanny.
Healthcare professionals who work with autistic children include pediatricians, psychologists, hospital and community nurses, speech-language pathologists and occupational therapists. Pediatricians are children’s doctors who have followed medical school with specialized training. Developmental psychologists study mental processes and behavior in children and young people. Based in clinics, schools or hospitals, they evaluate children’s abilities and problems and advise their parents, teachers and therapists on how to cope. To practice as a psychologist, you need a master’s or doctoral degree in your specialism, and professional certification. Nurses who want to work with autistic children may take mental health, school, pediatric or learning disability nursing electives while or after completing their registered nurse training. Speech-language pathologists help autistic children and their parents overcome the communication problems that are characteristic of autism. You qualify to practice by earning a master’s degree and state license. Occupational therapists help children learn to cope with everyday and playtime activities. Again, you need a master’s degree and license to practice.
Rehabilitation and Other Therapies
Rehabilitation therapists help people of all ages who have physical, mental or emotional disabilities to gain independence and fulfill their potential. For autistic children, this may mean assessing their abilities, finding ways for them to cope with personal and social problems, and building bridges with their family and social groups. Rehab therapists work in state or federal agencies, community programs, rehab centers, schools and colleges. Training involves a master’s degree, which can include special modules such as intellectual disabilities and communication disorders, plus professional and state certification.
Art, music, drama or recreational therapists also help autistic children communicate and interact with others. You can qualify as a therapist at master’s level following a bachelor’s degree in your chosen subject.
Social workers try to improve the social and psychological functioning of children and their families so the children do better in school and at home. They are trained in assessment, therapy and counseling, psychology, and the treatment of behavioral and affective disorders, as well as the skills of finding and coordinating sources of practical support in the community. Training involves a bachelor’s and preferably a master’s degree in social work. However, you don’t always need professional qualifications to become a residential care worker in, for example, a children’s home, special school for autistic children, or supported living scheme.
Voluntary and Non-profit Sectors
Charities and non-profit agencies that focus on autism offer opportunities for both paid and unpaid work. They employ professional teachers, social workers and therapists who work directly with children and families, and also they need people in supporting roles within administration, campaigning, information and advice. Volunteering in such organizations can provide useful insight and experience if you are interested in careers with autistic children, or if you are an autistic person seeking employment at any level.
- Autism Research Institute: Is It Autism?
- Bureau of Labor Statistics: Special Education Teachers
- Bureau of Labor Statistics: Psychologists
- Bureau of Labor Statistics: How to Become a School or Career Counselor
- allEducation Schools: Teacher's Aide
- Bureau of Labor Statistics: Speech-Language Pathologist
- Bureau of Labor Statistics: What Occupational Therapists Do
- American Medical Association: Rehabilitation Counselor
- Bureau of Labor Statistics: Rehabilitation Counselors
- Bureau of Labor Statistics: What Recreational Therapists Do