An Autism Therapist Career: Pros and Cons
One common way to begin a career working in the broad field of autism therapy, which includes speech therapy and rehabilitation counseling, is to become an occupational therapist.To learn more about this field and determine if it's right for you, check out the following pros and cons.
|PROS of a Career as an Autism Therapist|
|Job outlook is excellent (29% projected increase in employment from 2012-2022)*|
|High salary (mean wage of $80,000 a year)*|
|Ability to help people build independence and have full lives***|
|Ability to work part-time (30% worked part time in 2010)*|
|CONS of a Career as an Autism Therapist|
|A master's degree is required to be an occupational therapist*|
|You must acquire a state license*|
|Many states require that you be certified as an occupational therapist to be licensed*|
|Must to be able to lift and move physically disabled patients*|
Sources: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, **American Occupational Therapy Association.
Autism, which is a diagnosis included in autism spectrum disorder (ASD), is the most rapidly increasing serious developmental disability in the U.S., according to the advocacy organization Autism Speaks. The organization's website reports that the number of children diagnosed with ASD over the last 40 years has gone up ten times. ASD is a disorder of the brain that affects communication and social behavior, and is usually first detected in pre-school aged children.
Being an occupational therapist who works with autistic clients can be a very satisfying career. As part of a team of professionals treating those with ASD, your function is to help children and adults with autism learn to feed and dress themselves, socialize, learn and play. Other types of autism therapists might include speech-language pathologists, special education teachers and physicians.
Salary and Job Outlook
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), job opportunities for occupational therapists were anticipated to increase 29% from 2012-2022, which is much faster than average growth. In May 2014, occupational therapists earned a mean salary of about $80,000 per year.
What Are the Career Requirements?
To become an occupational therapist that works directly with people who have ASD, you need a master's degree in occupational therapy. Many such degree programs are available at colleges and universities, and involve fieldwork that provides you with real-life experience. Classroom studies might include neurobiology, kinesiology, anatomy and patient communication.
A number of professional certificates in ASD are also available. These address specific concerns that occupational therapists often have when working with autistic clients, such as autism assessment, intervention and treatment.
Certification and State Licensure
The National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy (NBCOT) offers the Occupational Therapist Registered (OTR) credential. To be eligible to take the NBCOT examination, you must have a degree in occupational therapy from an approved program, have completed your fieldwork, be proficient in English and agree to the NBCOT conduct code. You must also continue your education to uphold your certification.
All states in the U.S. require that you have a state license to practice as an occupational therapist. To become licensed, you need to have an accredited degree and NBCOT certification.
If you want to work with autistic people, you should have compassion for those struggling with the disability. Also, it can be frustrating for children and adults trying to learn new skills, so you need to have patience. Below are some other skills that may help you:
- Ability to communicate and listen well
- Good interpersonal skills
- Creative use of play and other therapeutic activities
- Ability to collaborate with family and other professionals
- Physical capability to stand for long hours and move severely disabled patients
Jobs Posted by Real Employers
You can find positions in autism therapy with specialty clinics, autism therapy groups and schools. Many employers look for people with a master's degree in occupational therapy and licensure for the state where the job is located. Below are some samples from May 2012 job postings:
- A school for autistic children and young adults in Pennsylvania is seeking an occupational therapist to work with students diagnosed with ASD. You can work as part of a team that creates comprehensive treatment plans for each child. You should have a bachelor's or master's degree from an accredited program in occupational therapy, a valid state license, experience with ASD clientele and an optimistic attitude.
- A medical group focusing on ASD therapies in California is seeking an occupational therapist to teach children real-life skills through play and other social activity. You must have a master's degree in occupational therapy, a state license, be certified in CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation) and have three years of occupational therapy experience with autistic children.
- A pediatric healthcare group in New Jersey is hoping to hire several occupational therapists for inpatient and outpatient environments. If hired, you could work with clients aged 0-21 with ASD, sensory integration disorder and other diagnoses. You must have a state occupational therapy license and be a creative, interpersonal, team-player. The ideal candidate has pediatric experience, but the organization frequently hires and mentors new graduates.
- An organization that provides special education professionals for schools in California is looking for an occupational therapist to develop programs for autistic children. You must be an experienced, upbeat, team-player, with a master's degree and a state license in occupational therapy. The employer is looking for someone who is proficient in Spanish and English and can travel to various sites.
How to Stand Out
Employers usually mention in job postings that they're looking for people who are good at collaborating with others. In most positions, you must work with various other therapeutic professionals to treat your autistic patients, so having a positive attitude and strong relational skills could set you apart from other applicants. Also, some organizations hire new graduates, but having experience working with people who have ASD might inspire an employer to hire you over someone else.
You should strongly consider earning the OTR credential from NBCOT. While NBCOT certification is technically optional, you generally need it to get your state's license in occupational therapy.
Other Careers to Consider
Occupational Therapy Assistant
Occupational therapy assistants work under occupational therapists and usually have direct involvement in planning and providing therapy to patients. The upside to this career is that you only need an associate's degree from an accredited occupational therapy assistant program. You can also work with people who have ASD; however, just like an occupational therapist, you must completed educational fieldwork and usually need a state license to practice.
The BLS reported that the job outlook for occupational therapy assistants was predicted to grow much faster than average, at 43% from 2010-2020. The pay is lower than for a career as an occupational therapist, but it's still good, considering you only need a 2-year degree. In May 2011, occupational therapy assistants earned an average salary of about $52,000 per year.
Special Education Teacher
Special education teachers help children with various disabilities, including autism. In fact, special education teachers may work as part of a professional team, alongside occupational therapists, to treat children with ASD. Your education is generally less than what is required for an occupational therapist, since you only need a bachelor's degree in special education and a state license to teach in public schools. Some states require that you earn a master's degree in special education after you begin your teaching career.
According to the BLS, the career prospects for educators at the preschool, kindergarten and elementary school levels were the highest among all special education teachers. Jobs were expected to increase 21% from 2010-2020, which is faster than average, but opportunities could be better if you choose to work with children who have ASD. Mean salaries in May 2011 for preschool, kindergarten and elementary special education teachers were around $56,000 annually.