What type of psychologist works with individuals with autism

Deborah C. Escalante

Oct. 23, 2008 — Question: What kind of psychologist provides useful assistance for individuals with autism?

Answer: Well, there are many kinds of psychologists and I think that first of all, it’s important to use the right subspecialty of psychology for different stages. If, for a child with autism spectrum disorder, for example, a developmental psychologists or a pediatric psychologist is usually trained in making the diagnosis of autism and deciphering it from other causes of language problems or problems in relatedness.

This is usually done in combination with a medical professional like a pediatric neurologist, developmental behavioral pediatrician like I am, or a child psychiatrist. Behavioral psychologists are extremely helpful to many parents of kids with autism because they work with specific behaviors and reward systems. And actually one of the key therapies that’s used in autism spectrum is like Applied Behavioral Analysis, or ABA, is really based on behavioral psychology. Then one would go back often to a pediatric or a developmental psychologist to monitor the progress of the behavioral interventions provided by the behavioral psychologist or the people trained by and supervised by the behavioral psychologist.

Autism is a developmental disorder that affects communication and social interaction. Children with autism often receive a variety of services, including early intervention, nutritional therapy, occupational therapy and play therapy. Psychologists are usually involved from the beginning, providing diagnostic services and treatment to children with autism. Working as a psychologist with autistic children can be a rewarding and fulfilling career choice.

What You’ll Do

Psychologists provide a range of services to children with autism. Children who are thought to have autism are assessed by a multidisciplinary team generally consisting of a pediatrician, pediatric neurologist, developmental pediatrician, child psychiatrist or psychologist specializing in diagnosing autism, or licensed professional who can medically diagnosis autism. As a psychologist, you’ll not only be a part of the multidisciplinary team, you’ll also provide a service known as Applied Behavior Analysis, or ABA. This type of treatment involves the use of various techniques and principles to help bring about positive and beneficial changes in behavior.


Clinical psychologists who work with children with autism need to have a doctoral degree in psychology — either a Ph.D. or a Psy.D. You can also work with autistic children if you obtain a master’s degree and specialize in applied behavior analysis. After earning a master’s degree or a doctoral degree, you are eligible for certification as a Board Certified Behavioral Analyst, or BCBA, with the Behavior Analysis Certification Board. Doctoral level candidates are eligible for doctoral-level credential, or BCBA-D. Bachelor’s level candidates may be eligible for certification as a Board Certified Assistant Behavioral Analyst, or BCABA, if your bachelor’s degree is in behavior analysis or another field approved by the certifying organization. They may also be referred to as psychologists, although the term is generally reserved for master’s and doctoral level practitioners.

BCABA Certification Requirements

Certification requirements for the BCABA credential involves submitting verification that you have obtained at least a bachelor’s degree in applied behavior analysis or other natural science, education, human services, engineering, medicine or a field related to behavior analysis and approved by the BACB. Additionally, you must show that you have completed 135 classroom hours of instruction in specific content fields, including ethics, behavioral assessment and behavioral change procedures, and submit proof of 1,000 hours of supervised independent fieldwork in behavior analysis.

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BCBA Certification Requirements

There are three options you can choose to become a certified behavior analyst. All candidates must have obtained a minimum of a master’s degree in behavior analysis or other natural science, education, human services, engineering, medicine or a field related to behavior analysis and approved by the BACB. All master’s level candidates must also show proof of completion of at least 1,500 hours of supervised experience in behavior analysis. The coursework option of certification involves submitting proof of completion of 225 hours of graduate level instruction in specific content areas including ethics, experimental evaluation of interventions and behavioral change procedures. The college teaching option involves submitting proof of completing a one-academic-year, full-time faculty appointment at a college or university teaching applied behavior analysis. The doctoral option, which confers an additional credential signifying that you are certified on the doctoral level, requires that your doctoral degree was obtained at least 10 years prior to your application for certification. In addition, you must show proof that you have at least 10 years’ postdoctoral experience in behavior analysis.

What is a psychologist?

Psychologists are health professionals who study the human mind – our mental health, emotions, intelligence, motivations and behaviours. They use psychotherapy (sometimes called cognitive therapy or ‘talk’ therapy) to help people find solutions to relationships, learning, performance in a range of areas and life’s challenges.

What is the difference between a psychologist and a psychiatrist?

Psychologists are not medically trained and cannot prescribe medications. Psychiatrists are medical doctors who are able to prescribe medications. Both psychologists and psychiatrists diagnose and treat mental illnesses and conditions.

How can psychologists help people with autism?

Some psychologists have an interest and expertise in autism, gained through additional study and clinical experience.

A General Practitioner (GP) or other health professional may refer a person to a Psychologist if they suspect that the person has autism, or if they have concerns about the person’s mental health. Self-referrals can also be made to a Psychologist.

Specifically, Psychologists can assist people with autism, or who are suspected of having autism, with the following professional services:

How do psychologists provide their services?

 Psychologists generally conduct in-clinic, individualised assessments, and then recommend a series of follow up counselling and therapy sessions. Some psychologists can also do home visits, kindergarten and child care visits, school visits, or work visits.

Where do autism psychologists practice?

Many psychologists work in private practice, either in their own clinics or as part of a multi-disciplinary team of health professionals. They may also be employed by schools, public and private hospitals and community health services. To find out more, or to get a referral speak with your GP, or visit our support and services page.

What training do psychologists undertake?

 Psychology is a regulated health profession. To practice as a professional psychologist a person must:

  • Complete a recognised University degree qualification followed by training and supervised experience (around six years).
  • Register with the Psychology Board of Australia and Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency (AHPRA).
  • Adhere to the Australian Psychological Society Code of Ethics.
  • Complete continuing professional development and meet all requirements of the Psychology Board of Australia.
  • To make autism diagnostic assessments, they may also need to complete additional professional development requirements.

What does a psychologist cost?

The fee at which a service is set is at the discretion of the individual psychologist so it is important to discuss this with the psychologist or clinic manager before booking an appointment.

Psychology is an approved service under the NDIS. For more information about the funding options that may be available to you please visit our financial services page.

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Further information

For more information about psychology, please visit the Australian Psychological Society website, or the Psychology Board of Australia website.

Careers in the Autism Field

With Autism Spectrum Disorders being increasingly recognized and diagnosed, now is a good time to pursue a career working with individuals with ASD. But where to start? For those determined to work with children on the autism spectrum, we’ve rounded up 10 of the most rewarding careers. We’ve included the basic tasks of each rewarding career, and laid out exactly what is required to land that first interview. Finally, we consulted the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Occupational Outlook Handbook for information regarding job outlook and median pay.

Special Education Teacher

With one in every 68 children in the United States affected by autism, a special education teacher is extremely important and influential in the life of a child on the autism spectrum. Autistic students have a variety of developmental, learning, physical, and emotional needs, and special education teachers are specifically trained to help students deal with those needs and overcome challenges. A typical day might include working with a single student or several students in specific academic subjects and/or basic skills, communication, and literacy.

What is Required: The position of special education teacher in a public school will require a bachelor’s degree and a teaching license specific to the teacher’s state. It is often possible to obtain a position in special education at a private school with only a bachelor’s degree.

Median Income: $57,910

Learn More:

Special Education Teacher
Special Education Teacher: Occupational Outlook Handbook, US Bureau of Labor Statistics
National Association of Special Education Teachers (NASET)

Applied Behavior Analyst

An applied behavior analyst is a specific type of psychologist specializing in autistic children. They work closely with children on the autism spectrum to find correlation between a child’s behavior and environment. The goal of an applied behavior analyst is to work with the child and his or her family to bring about necessary behavioral changes and successfully reach goals of increased independence.

Related: 15 Best Applied Behavior Analysis Online Programs

What is Required: To become an applied behavior analyst, you will need a master’s degree and license to practice clinical psychology. Once you have those, either training in applied behavior analysis or a doctoral degree in behavioral analysis will prepare you for the required board certification. Similarly, the job of assistant behavior analyst requires only a bachelor of science degree and a certification exam.

Median Income: $75,230

Learn More:

Applied Behavior Analyst

Behavior Analyst Certification Board: Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA)

Occupational Therapist

Occupational therapists work with all kinds of people, including children on the autism spectrum, in order to help their clients become more independent. While working with an autistic child, an occupational therapist might assist the child with basic skills such as eating, using the toilet, or writing.

What is Required: To become an occupational therapist, one must have a master’s degree or higher in occupational therapy, plus be licensed to practice therapy in his or her state.

Median Income: $81,910

Learn More:

Occupational Therapist
Occupational Therapist: Occupational Outlook Handbook, US Bureau of Labor Statistics
The American Occupational Therapy Association, Inc. (AOTA)

Autism Spectrum Disorder Specialist

Like an applied behavior analyst, an autism spectrum disorder specialist works with children and adults on the autism spectrum on things like everyday tasks, social behaviors, and academic goals. They often work in educational settings such as schools, where they might also hold such positions as classroom aids or therapists.

What is Required:
While a bachelor’s degree in special education or a related topic is enough for some employers, others require a a master’s degree or higher. To practice as an autism spectrum disorder specialist, one must become board certified by passing the Behavior Analyst Certification Board.

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Median Income: $49,000

Learn More:

Autism Spectrum Disorder Specialist
Autism Spectrum Disorder Specialist Salary and Career Facts

Social Worker

Social workers interact with all kinds of people in all kinds of situations, but when it comes to working with children on the autism spectrum, a social worker’s job is twofold. On one hand, a social worker works with the autistic child to improve his or her social and psychological functioning. At the same time, the social worker works closely with the child’s family to offer support, give ideas about how to improve social interactions, and coordinate therapies and other services that might benefit the entire family.

What is Required: A bachelor’s degree is often satisfactory for jobs in residential care, supported living environments, and schools. Other positions require a master’s degree.

Median Income: $46,890

Learn More:

Social Worker
Social Worker: Occupational Outlook Handbook, US Bureau of Labor Statistics
Association of Social Work Boards: Social Work Licensing 

Speech Language Pathologist

Becoming a speech-language pathologist is a great option for those who want to work with children on the autism spectrum, as many autistic children experience challenges in language and communication. A pathologist works with an autistic child to improve speech, develop alternative ways of communicating, or treat cognitive-communication delays. Pathologists may work in a private practice, for a doctor’s office, or at a school.

What is Required: At least a master’s degree in speech-language pathology is required to become a speech language pathologist. In some states, pathologists must be licensed in order to practice.

Median Income: $74,680

Learn More:

Speech Language Pathologist
Speech Language Pathologist: Occupational Outlook Handbook, US Bureau of Labor Statistics
Speech-Language Pathology: American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA) 

Developmental Psychologist

Like the other psychology careers on this list, a developmental psychologist can work closely with children on the autism spectrum. A developmental psychologist might work in a clinic, hospital, or school, where they evaluate children in order to better advise parents, teachers, and doctors on the best treatments, therapies, and other coping methods.

What is Required: In order to practice as a developmental psychologist, one must earn a master’s or doctoral degree, plus certification in the intended field of practice.

Median Income: $75,230

Learn More:

Developmental Psychologist
Psychologist: Occupational Outlook Handbook, US Bureau of Labor Statistics
Career in Developmental Psychology: American Psychological Association

Rehabilitation Therapist

Rehabilitation therapists work with autistic children in rehab centers, schools, universities, community programs, or government agencies. It is their job to assess a child’s abilities, then find ways to help that child deal with family and social situations. The overall goal of a rehabilitation therapist is to help his or her clients gain physical and emotional independence to help them reach their full potential.

What is Required: Rehabilitation therapists must earn a master’s degree in a subject relating to intellectual or communication disorders, professional certification, and in most cases, state certification.

Median Income: $34,670

Learn More:

Rehabilitation Therapist
Rehabilitation Counselor: Occupational Outlook Handbook, US Bureau of Labor Statistics


Many families, including those with an autistic child, choose to employ a nanny. For a nanny in a home with an autistic child, duties might include accompanying the child to social events, working with the child on basic everyday tasks, and helping out in other ways.

What is Required: Requirements vary. Some families might prefer a nanny to have certification in early childhood education, while others might not require any formal education or training.

Median Income: $21,170

Learn More:

Childcare Workers: Occupational Outlook Handbook, US Bureau of Labor Statistics 

Art Therapist

Many autistic children who have trouble with speech or language are able to express themselves in other ways, such as through art. An art therapist uses music, painting and drawing, crafts, and drama to help children on the autism spectrum grow their confidence and communication skills, while also learning to interact with others.

What is Required: A practicing therapist should have a master’s degree in his or her chosen field.

Median Income: $46,410

Learn More:

Art Therapist
Becoming and Art Therapist: American Art Therapy Association 

Further Reading:

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