Working With Children With Autism
It takes a special kind of person to assist children with autism.
But for those with the right personality and training, there's no shortage
of opportunities. Autism support workers are greatly needed in public schools
as well as private facilities.
Autism support workers have various levels of education. Some have completed
one-year programs in applied behavior analysis or behavioral intervention.
Some have a diploma or degree in early childhood education or psychology.
And some have learned their skills on the job, working with children with
autism or other disabilities.
Ideally, you should have both classroom training and hands-on experience
helping children with autism.
You can get that experience by volunteering while you're still in high
school. That's what Lynn Service did. She's the training facilitator at a
learning center for children and youth with autism spectrum disorders and
"When I was in high school, I often would volunteer with summer camps,
and I would work with kids with lots of different developmental disabilities,"
explains Service. "And then when I first... started in the psychology program
(at college) I had a friend who'd started working as a BI (behavior interventionist)
and she said, 'I think you'd really be good at it too,' so I kind of started
Service now has a bachelor's degree in psychology and recently completed
a disability and applied behavior analysis program at college.
The support workers that Service trains are called behavior interventionists.
Those who work with autistic kids in other settings might also be called direct
support workers, special education assistants or autism care aides.
Whatever title they go by, there are certain qualities that autism support
workers need to have.
"They have to like kids of all ages," says Service. "I think patience is
very, very important because often these kids don't learn at the same pace
that typical kids do, so you have to be patient and keep working on things
for longer periods of time.
"Have a good personality, be upbeat, be exciting, be fun to be with, know
how to play -- that's a big important one. And to not be afraid to be a kid.
I mean, most of the people I work with, we all watch the latest kids' movie
that's out, because we're all big kids ourselves and we all love working with
Susan McPhail agrees that autism support workers need "patience -- a lot
of patience." McPhail is a special education teacher with more than 20 years
of experience working with children with autism.
"Some people just get it. They just kind of instinctively know that people
with autism might need a little bit more time to process things," says McPhail.
"They might need a little bit of warning when there's going to be a schedule
change or [when] something about their routine will be different."
McPhail is currently working on a doctoral degree in elementary education.
The focus of her dissertation is teacher training in autism.
Two of the students in McPhail's classroom are on the autism spectrum and
her 23-year-old daughter has autism.
"Having a daughter diagnosed on the spectrum actually got me interested
in self-learning a lot of what I could, and then the facility for which I
work sent me to a lot of training," says McPhail.
"I would suggest that anybody who's interested in working with people
with autism learn as much about autism as they can, and learn that it's a
very, very different disability than [most others]," says McPhail. "It's very
challenging but... people tell me that the students they have who have autism
are their favorites.
"Even though they might be the most challenging behaviorally, they're always
the favorite," McPhail adds.
"They can be very loving, but they might not want to be touched at all,
so their willingness to be around people is pretty much their decision and
not yours. So you'd have to be the kind of person who'd understand that sometimes
they just want to be left alone."
Autism support work can lead to more senior roles, such as applied behavior
analyst, behavior consultant or autism consultant. These roles typically require
advanced degrees (master's degree or higher).
William Kent is a behavior consultant with a master's degree in applied
behavior analysis and a bachelor of science degree in special education/elementary
education. He's also an instructor for a applied behavior analysis certificate
program. He says students in his program need certain personal qualities
"They need to be very patient, very flexible," says Kent. "Communication
is very important -- how you interact with the teacher, maybe the other SEAs
(special education assistants) or the other school people in general....
"You also need to be kind of vigilant," Kent adds. "You need to be making
sure you stick to the plan. It's easy to just check out and say, 'Oh, we'll
just play with the puzzle the whole day.' You really need to be self-directed
and very independent to be successful."
Kent says there's a big demand for behavior consultants as well as autism
"There is a lot of demand there and not enough qualified professionals
to assist with them," says Kent. "Most behavior consultants have a long waitlist.
The diagnoses are happening every day, and they (parents) are calling in and
looking for support as soon as they get their diagnosis. In the mid '90s,
one in every 10,000 children diagnosed had autism -- now it's one out of 150."
Why the big increase? "People have their theories as to why, but until
hard evidence comes out, nobody really knows why [there is] the increase,"
says Kent. "But there's certainly been a dramatic increase in the last 15
Kent says one factor is that medical professionals have gotten better at
diagnosing autism. "They've also broadened the definition of it so that now
Asperger's Syndrome, which is not like classic autism, [is included]."
Kathryn Rosberg is an autism support worker in a Grade 4 classroom. She
assists a male student with autism and also "floats" around to assist the
other students from time to time.
"For my student in particular, it's less academic and more a social thing,"
says Rosberg. "He's pretty high functioning, so I try and help him in kind
of a subtle way -- I try not to draw attention to him, and we do a bit of
one-on-one stuff as well.
"I pull him out of the classroom sometimes and we talk about things and
do a lot of social stories," Rosberg adds. "For someone to walk into our classroom,
you probably wouldn't pick him out right away. It's a more subtle thing --
social skills and personal relationships and friendships that we're working
In university, where she earned a psychology degree, Rosberg started working
with kids with autism because it let her have a flexible schedule. She was
traveling a lot for swimming competitions.
"I started working with kids with autism at home and started doing swimming
lessons with them as well," says Rosberg. She later earned a certificate
in applied behavior analysis. Her plan is to return to school and become a
Rosberg says the best part of helping kids with autism is seeing their
"You work on something for so long and then you see the changes and you
see them developing and growing and learning," says Rosberg. "And you know
you're directly responsible for that.
"You're the one that taught the kid that, and all of a sudden they can
do it," Rosberg adds. "That's why I do it -- that's really rewarding.
"There are frustrating days and hard days and days when my patience is
running very thin, and then there are days when all of a sudden something
clicks for them and they get it, and it's like a light bulb goes off on top
of their head and it's so rewarding."
Resources for professionals, family members, and those with autism
Twelve Tips for Setting up an Autism Classroom
Learn how teachers can help students with autism
Awe in Autism
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