If you want your career to revolve around helping individuals diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) reach their full potential of function in different areas of their lives, there are many degrees you could consider. Professibonals in a range of career fields work together to lessen the impact of autism on individuals’ quality of life by helping them better acquire knowledge and skills and reduce the behaviors that are harmful to their own or others’ wellbeing. Some of the fields in which you might consider pursuing a degree include psychology and behavior analysis, education, occupational therapy, social work and speech-language pathology.

What Degree Do People With a Job in Treating Autism Have?

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Degree Options in Psychology and Behavior Analysis

Given the dramatic effects autism spectrum disorder can have on a person’s life, it’s no surprise that psychologists – who study thinking and behavior – are often part of the team that works with individuals with autism. There are multiple types of psychologists whose work can be beneficial for helping individuals with autism. For example, developmental psychologists are often the ones who make a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder. Pediatric psychologists often work with children who have autism.

One form of therapy that has a particularly large body of evidence to support its effectiveness in treating children with autism is applied behavior analysis, or ABA. Practitioners in the field of ABA aren’t necessarily licensed psychologists, but instead, professionals who are educated, trained and credentialed in this specialized area of clinical practice. Education options in behavior analysis range from the short 40-hour training programs needed to become a Registered Behavior Technician (RBT) to master’s and doctoral degree programs that cover the core content areas in the field.

The average wgae for Board Certified Behavior Analysts (BCBAs), who have a graduate degree, is $59,248, according to PayScale. For Board Certified Assistant Behavior Analysts (BCaBAs), who have a bachelor’s degree, PayScale reports an average salary of $43,364.

Special Education Degrees

If you want to work with children with autism and other developmental disorders in a teaching capacity, you might pursue studies in special education. A special education degree can qualify you to work in classroom settings or in resource rooms, instructing individuals or small groups of students with special needs, according to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

The degree needed to work in special education can vary from one state and school district to another. At the minimum, you will need a bachelor’s degree in education, with enough studies in special education specifically to qualify as a major program of study or a minor or concentration. Some employers require a graduate degree to be qualified as a special education teacher. Available in traditional and online formats, master’s degrees in special education may include studies in applied behavior analysis strategies for teachers, the evaluation of exceptional children,  intervention strategies, assistive technology, characteristics of children with disabilities and issues in special education.

Special education teachers earn a median wage of $59,780, the BLS reported.

Degrees in Occupational Therapy

Some individuals with autism spectrum disorder have little independence because they need assistance with the activities of daily living. To allow for more independence, occupational therapists can work to help ASD patients with many of these activities, ranging from basic self-care functions like eating and toilet training to acquiring communication skills, sensory processing skills and fine motor skills.

If you haven’t heard of occupational therapy before, you aren’t alone. Like the better-known discipline of physical therapy, the goal of occupational therapy is to improve function. Yet instead of focusing on the physical performance of large muscle groups, occupational therapy focuses on the everyday activities that are part of life and work, including both physical and mental skills. master’s degree is the lowest level of education accepted to become an occupational therapist, the BLS reported, although doctoral programs in physical therapy also exist.

More than 70 percent of occupational therapists have a master’s degree. Occupational therapist is a high-paying career, with the BLS reporting a median wage of $84,270 per year.

Social Work Degrees

Researchers have learned that appropriate intervention and treatment – especially when started early in the patient’s life, shortly after diagnosis – can improve the function of people with autism and help them live fuller and more independent lives. Families affected by autism often need help accessing care and navigating the resources available for child and adult patients. Social workers may be the ones to fill this gap, connecting patients and their families to the services that can help them. Licensed clinical social workers (LCSWs) sometimes diagnose and provide treatment to individuals with autism, just as other mental health professionals are qualified to do.

A Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) program can prepare you to become a social worker, but to work with patients with autism in a clinical setting, you would need to earn a Master of Social Work and acquire a license to practice.

Degrees in Speech-Language Pathology

Some of the most challenging symptoms caused by autism are the ones that impact an individual’s ability to communicate. Advocacy organization Autism Speaks reports that one-third of individuals with autism are nonverbal, while others struggle with different aspects of verbal and nonverbal communication. One of the professional roles routinely brought in to help improve language problems among individuals with ASD is speech-language pathologist.

Speech-language pathologists use strategies to improve function related to a wide variety of communication and language issues, ranging from teaching basic words to patients who cannot speak at all to helping patients overcome problems with the rhythm and fluency of speech, the BLS reported. Among individuals who achieve greater function in communication, a speech-language pathologist may even use strategies to teach the basics of how to hold a conversation.

A master’s degree in speech-language pathology is the standard education needed to attain a license and practice in this field, according to the BLS. The median wage for speech-language pathologists is $77,510.

Additional Resources

What Populations Does a Behavior Analyst Work With?

What Does a Behavior Analyst Do?

What Is Applied Behavior Analysis?