Over the last two decades, Autism Spectrum Disorder, or ASD, has become a more frequent diagnosis among children in the United States and it’s a diagnosis that crosses racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic divides. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that one in 59 children is diagnosed with ASD compared with one in 150 children in the year 2000.
What this means for parents, educators, and for communities is that there are many more children in the classroom who have been identified as having special needs and who need specialized help. Teachers and aides may need to help these students process material in a different way so that they can learn it better, or they may need to help students manage their emotions or learn social skills to better interact with their peers and the world around them.
The growing incidence of ASD and the increased awareness of what these students need to be successful in the classroom has created demand for teachers and professionals who are trained to work with children with autism, specifically. If you are a teacher or professional who is likely to work with children who have ASD, you may want to consider getting more education to become a certified autism specialist.
What Does a Certified Autism Specialist Do?
An autism specialist is someone who works with children who are diagnosed with ASD, which can include a range of behaviors and challenges. Not all children who have been diagnosed on the spectrum behave the same way or struggle with the same issues. Some children with ASD may have extreme sensory processing issues, such as reacting negatively to loud noises or unpleasant smells. Others may have difficulty with social interactions, such as being able to process another’s emotions or using appropriate manners. Children with ASD can have mild or severe neurological challenges.
Autism specialists who get an advanced autism certification learn the specific skills necessary to work with these children and help them meet their goals. They can provide therapy or assistance in a classroom, private counseling, or even at home. For example, Dr. David Rago, the academic program director of the Graduate Certificate in Autism program at National University, said that an autism specialist could help those on the autism spectrum learn social skills through modeling.
“It could be learning about visual modeling or peer training, so if there’s a specific behavior or social interaction that the student needs to learn, like how to take turns, they could use visual modeling. It could also be in person, in real time, what it looks like to take turns,” he says.
Autism specialists also work with other students who are in the same classroom. For example, they might teach the other students about the challenges that autistic students face and what they can do to have improved interactions. The specialist might teach these students how to model behaviors for autistic students. “They would interact with a student with autism in a way that would prompt positive behavior,” Rago says.
Teaching autistic students these skills and teaching other students how to support them can help autistic students to be more successful in the classroom, have improved interactions with their peers, and later perform better in the job market.
Where do Autism Specialists Work?
Typically, autism specialists work in educational settings, such as public and private K-12 classrooms. Students with ASD may be placed in a specific, special education classroom, or they may be a part of a general education classroom and get special assistance from an aide. They may also be sent to a special class for part of the day where they receive additional help.
Certified autism specialists work in any of these settings, either as specialized teachers, general education teachers who can offer specialized instruction for autistic students or assistants in the classroom.
Other professionals can also become autism specialists to get the credentials necessary to work with ASD children. For example, Rago says that private therapists may choose to become specialists in this field, or social workers who have clients with ASD or clients who have children with ASD may want to get this certification. Private aides may also find it helpful to get the certification; these professionals focus not on teaching ASD children, but on supporting their social, emotional, and behavioral needs.
Most people who work with individuals on the autism spectrum are not required to have special training or certification in autism. Typically, teachers have a certification in teaching or in special education. Other professionals who may work with autistic individuals may be trained primarily as psychologists, behavioral therapists, personal aides, or family counselors, for example. Each of these professions has its own requirements for practice, which do not necessarily take into consideration working with an autistic population.
According to Rago, getting an autism certification can help teachers and other professionals open up new job opportunities and make them more marketable to potential employers. Teachers can qualify for more jobs by showing that they are trained to work with autistic students, who are a growing part of the student population; other professionals can attract more clients by showing that they are educated on the special needs of autistic children.
Becoming a Certified Autism Specialist
To become a certified autism specialist, you need to get additional education on the specific needs of individuals with ASD, as well as on the most effective therapeutic strategies to help them, including their educational, behavioral, social, and emotional needs.
National University is one of the top San Diego universities and colleges offering this certification. The Graduate Certificate in Autism at National University consists of four courses, which can each be completed in four weeks. The courses are designed to be taken sequentially, so the program can be finished in as little as four months, making it especially convenient for working professionals to complete.
“This program, in particular, is designed for teachers who have some special education electives and are working with children who have special needs,” Rago says. “First, the program gives them a foundational understanding of what autism is and what it looks like in students, and then it gives them the practical methods and strategies to address their needs.”
Rago says the program teaches students how to design lessons and curriculum to meet the particular learning needs of students with ASD, as well as strategies to help them overcome their emotional and social challenges.
The program at National University includes a mix of online classes and in-person autism training in the field, such as in local classrooms and with local families. The additional focus on working with and supporting the families of children with autism is one of the components that sets the program at National University apart. The classes offer instruction through videos, case studies, and other materials.
“I think it’s a good program, a strong program, as it does give people who have their special ed license a more in-depth look at behaviors of those who have specific academic and social needs,” Rago says. “It also gives the historical perspective that sometimes you don’t get in classes when you’re working toward a special ed license.”
Rago points out that the program at National University also distinguishes itself with its timeline. He said that many other programs that offer the autism certification require more courses, or they don’t allow students to finish the courses online.
“At National, it’s possible for teachers who are being asked to get it by their district to get it done in one school year,” he says.
Another way that the National University program distinguishes itself is in the quality and experience of the instructors hired to teach the courses. “The instructors who teach the courses are people actually in the field and are professionals who work with people and families with autism,” Rago says. “A couple of them have published books on strategies of working with people with autism. The background and the experience of the instructors add to the experience our students get.”
Career Outcomes for an Autism Specialist
The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that special education teachers make a median salary of ranging from $55,840 for special ed preschool teachers to $60,600 for special ed teachers working at the secondary school level. (In California, it ranges from $47,870 at the preschool level to $82,380 at the secondary school level.) The BLS does not track information on autism specialists, specifically, but these professionals are counted among special education teachers and the bureau estimates that the number of jobs will grow by 8% percent between 2016 and 2026..
In practice, professionals who are classified as a certified autism specialist likely make more money than special education teachers. Rago says that the majority of people who enroll in the program at National University are already credentialed as special education teachers. By getting that extra autism training, they are increasing their marketability and are likely to get paid a larger salary.
“Somebody with a special ed license can work with students with autism in a special education setting,” Rago says. “But most of the schools – and this is specific to California because that is where the certificate is approved – if you’re going to be in a classroom specific to autism, they would like to see that you have some specialized training in addition to your general ed license.”
Rago advises that completing the autism certification makes a professional more attractive to employers and opens up additional career paths. Teachers may decide they want to go into clinical settings, or they can use the certification to segue into private practice. Pursuing those different career opportunities can give them leverage to negotiate higher salaries, as well.
With the growing rate of ASD diagnoses, you can be sure that you will have a wide variety of job opportunities for a long time to come. By getting the autism certification, you can distinguish yourself from other candidates, which will make you more competitive for jobs and give you more leverage to negotiate a higher salary.
Graduate Autism Certificate at National University
The Graduate Autism Certificate at National University is open to everyone. Credentialed teachers can complete the program to enhance their knowledge for practice in the classroom. (Credentialed teachers are encouraged to talk with a Credential Program Specialist to create a plan to get the most they can out of the program.)
Social workers, nurses, those who work in child development, and other professionals can also enroll in the program as a form of continuing education to help them better meet the needs of children and people with ASD they may work with in their practice. Students are issued a certificate upon completion of the program, proving their advanced autism training.
Those who complete the certification program at National University program will be able to:
- Know the history of the terms used for Autism Spectrum Disorder.
- Know state and federal regulations regarding children with autism.
- Know the landmark legislation and judicial decisions regarding children with autism.
- Confidently identify the behaviors and characteristics that a child with autism displays.
- Use behavioral analysis and techniques to help manage and change the behaviors of children with autism.
- Identify appropriate evidence-based strategies for working with children with autism, and select the best strategy for the needs of a particular child.
- Organize a structured classroom for children with autism. Work with the families of children with ASD, including providing support for them.
With monthly-start classes and year-round enrollment available, so you can begin your education to become a certified autism specialist any time you’re ready. If you are located in California, you can opt to take classes in person. Online courses can be taken on your schedule, but in-person courses are offered on a specific schedule.
National University offers financial aid for those who need it, and the school is military-friendly, with special discounts available for service members and their dependents. The school also offers support and resources to help all students be successful in their program of study, as well as in finding career opportunities after finishing their programs.