The term “autism specialist” is an umbrella term that applies to the many types of professionals who specialize in working with autistic patients, helping them medically, socially, and psychologically to increase quality of life. Autism specialists usually have a background as a nurse, doctor, social worker, psychologist, occupational therapist, special education teacher, or classroom teacher prior to specializing. Many countries require autism specialists to obtain licensure, which usually requires prior experience working with autistic children or adults and completing an autism specialist program at an accredited university, usually at least a bachelor’s degree level. Many of these programs are master’s degree level programs or certificate programs for those who already hold a master’s degree. Some who already have a degree in a related field become an autism specialist by training through an organization or university that teaches Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), a widely recognized and effective behavioral treatment.
Many colleges and universities offer master’s degree or autism specialist graduate certificate programs in cooperation with a particular region’s licensing requirements. These programs usually are offered within the education or psychology departments. Some programs offer distance learning options for students who are unable to physically attend classes.
Even in a region that doesn't require autism specialist licensing, a degree or certificate may be useful in obtaining a job as an autism specialist. In many areas, the number of children with autism is growing, outpacing the number of individuals qualified to treat them. Since there is not a single treatment protocol for dealing with autism, these programs accept students from a variety of backgrounds, including education, psychology, and health.
An increasing number of autism specialists enter the field by training in Applied Behavior Analysis. ABA therapists who have previously earned a bachelor’s or master’s degree in a related field may become certified through the Behavior Analyst Certification Board® (BACB®). A Board Certified Assistant Behavior Analyst® (BCaBA®) holds at least a bachelor’s degree, along with other qualifications. A Board Certified Behavioral Analyst® (BCBA®) holds at least a master’s degree. BCaBA®s and BCBA®s work in schools, in home therapy, and with parents to show how to use ABA techniques.
The American Medical Autism Board (AMAB) offers a certification to candidates who possess a Medical Doctor (MD) or Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (DO) degree. Being certified through AMAB shows that a doctor has experience in treating patients with autism and has completed rigorous training and examinations. Since many doctors lack training and experience treating patients with autism, the AMAB designation often is used by parents to help choose a doctor who is familiar with the different treatments and therapies available.