Education Requirements for a Special Needs Therapist

Special needs therapists work with autistic and other special needs children.
Special needs therapists work with autistic and other special needs children. (Image: Stockbyte/Stockbyte/Getty Images)

Special needs therapists work with children or adults who have conditions like autism. As a therapist for these individuals, the special needs or applied behavioral analysis (ABA) therapist helps children and adults with special needs develop skills and confidence needed to function in society. Special needs therapists need extensive education and training to be effective therapists.

Undergraduate Education

Special needs therapists need to have a graduate education to work in this field, but an undergraduate degree is first necessary as aspiring therapists work toward gaining the necessary qualifications. No specific undergraduate degree is necessarily required to work in this field, but a degree in psychology or a related area like child development studies or behavioral analysis can lay the necessary groundwork for further graduate study needed to serve as a special needs therapist.

Graduate Degree

Special needs therapists need to have a master's degree or higher. One of the more common degrees for special needs therapists is a master's degree in applied behavior analysis. Many different schools offer these degree programs, and each school has its own emphases and areas of specialization that students can pursue. The Chicago School of Professional Psychology, for example, offers a Master of Arts in Applied Behavior Analysis. This degree program is a broadly construed program that covers the broader field behavior analysis and requires course work in areas like human behavior and science, organizational behavior analysis and behavioral pharmacology. These types of programs generally take about one to two years to complete.

Post-graduate Certificate

Some special needs therapists go on to pursue additional post-graduate certificates in specialized areas like autism spectrum disorders. These certificates can be helpful for aspiring therapists who want to specialize or focus their practice rather than simply working with people with all types of developmental disabilities. These certificate programs typically require 12 to 15 credit hours and can be completed in as little as one semester of extra study.

Certification and Licensing

Special needs therapists can obtain certification through the Behavioral Analyst Certification Board (BACB). To be certified, applicants must meet the board's minimum education requirements and pass the board's certification exam. Therapists also typically need to be licensed as well. Licensing requirements vary by state and also tend to require that applicants have met the minimum education requirements to sit for a licensing examination.

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