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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 other disabilities.

"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 from there."

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 kids."

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 to succeed.

"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 support workers.

"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 years."

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 on."

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 teacher.

Rosberg says the best part of helping kids with autism is seeing their development.

"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."


Autism Society
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
Explore inspiring stories and artwork from people affected by autism

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