Why You Should Pursue a Degree, Endorsement, or Certificate in Autism Spectrum Disorder

Holly D. Elmore
Holly D. Elmore
Elementary school principal; M.A.Ed. in Educational Leadership, M.A. in Special Education
Colorful letters spell out Autism Spectrum Disorder on a wooden background.

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) diagnosis has increased significantly since 2014, a 10% increase from 2014 to 2018, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 2004, one in every 166 children were diagnosed. In 2018, one in every 54 children received the diagnosis. Increased research funding and understanding the benefits of identifying students on the spectrum to provide early intervention are a couple of the contributing factors that have caused the rise in cases.

As a result, educators need to equip themselves with the knowledge and skills to better understand ASD and how to best support learning for students with these differing abilities. Educators who pursue a degree in special education can often receive a master’s degree, endorsement, or certificate to specialize in ASD, broadening their perspective and toolbox to include strategies and knowledge to best educate students with ASD.

By 2029, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports there will be an increase of three percent in special education teachers, which equates to nearly 15,000 new jobs. ASD requires a very specialized approach, giving those teachers with a skill set to educate students with autism increased efficacy and marketability.

What is a Graduate Program in Autism Spectrum Disorder?

With the wide range of severity of autism, specialization comes through master’s-level coursework. Undergraduate studies can come in three different forms:

Special Education

This focuses specifically on the educational needs of students with autism and requires a special education degree.

Clinical Therapy

Clinical or therapeutic supports focus on altering or coping with behaviors. This also typically requires a bachelor’s degree in psychology.

Applied Behavior Analysis

This integrates behavior and learning: determining what behavior, why the behavior, and how to learn with the behavior. Some institutions are not specific on undergraduate degrees and will allow application regardless of undergraduate studies.

Based on the route chosen, you have three different options for specialization once you have obtained an undergraduate degree.


A master’s degree in ASD prepares candidates to work with students with developmental disabilities in communication, behavior, and learning. Professionals have the ability to help individuals from mild to severe diagnoses, varying age ranges, and differing sensory processing and communicative disorders. This degree gives the practitioner the flexibility to choose the work environment that best suits them, whether that be a classroom, within the community, or in-home support.

Coursework for a typical master’s degree would be theory and research-based information, gaining a solid understanding of child development and autism spectrum research, applied behavior analysis, legal policies for special education, assessment and evaluation, and appropriate pedagogy for students with ASD.


Pursuit of an autism certificate typically includes a smaller set of coursework specializing in ASD and then requires candidates to pass an exam. An extension of a degree program or an addition to current coursework, certifications do not stand alone in most instances. If you already have completed a master’s degree and want to obtain a specific skill set but have no intentions of pursuing a different career, this would be a more economical option.

Coursework for certification is typically shorter with direct objectives and applied practices for supporting degrees already obtained. An assessment indicates that you have met the identified criteria to be considered a specialist in ASD.


An endorsement is the acknowledgment of coursework; however, there is no examination to determine the level of proficiency of practice. The endorsement accompanies a degree or certificate; however, there is no stand-alone practice. This looks like someone who pursues a master’s in special education with an autism endorsement, which tells employers that you have taken elective courses that support this learning.

An endorsement is similar to a certificate; however, there is typically no exam to indicate a level of professional competency.

What are the Benefits of Pursuing an Autism Spectrum Disorder Graduate Program?

Pursuing a graduate program in ASD provides practitioners with the opportunity to go beyond the classroom. People with severe autism require assistance over their lifetime, so those who dive into this career can work in schools, homes, or in workplaces. Institutions and practices across the country are looking for individuals who understand how to meet the needs of the ASD population.


  • Increased marketability
  • Improved pedagogy
  • Increase in salary
  • Professional learning opportunities
  • Career growth
  • Increased understanding of child development

Why You Should Pursue an Autism Spectrum Disorder Graduate Program

Aside from the professional development and opportunities that an autism spectrum disorder program provides, there is an urgency in learning communities everywhere that need professionals who have the knowledge, skillset, and passion for investing in people with autism. As the rate of diagnosis increases, more research is conducted, and acquisition of knowledge regarding behavior, human development, sensory processing, and communication disorders becomes more prevalent; what we have always done does not meet the needs of these learners.

A great majority of people with autism exhibit differing abilities in communicative and social goals but are high academic achievers. These students do not benefit from the pedagogy that typical students with disabilities require. Research shows that highly structured environments focus on improving adaptive and executive functioning skills, while providing students the conditions to explore topics of interest, positively impacts the quality of life for those individuals who adapt to autism spectrum disorders.

As a collective community, we must determine that now is the time to make a difference and link our arms to be change agents for a population of individuals who bring differing perspectives and unique approaches to learning the same concepts as their same-aged peers; but then allow those strategies to bleed over into mainstream education to enhance the learning experience for all students. Those practitioners who have specialized degrees are those who are the leaders of this work. Advocacy for students with ASD starts by investing in your learning to determine what you need to do differently to meet the needs of those who cannot adapt.

As a school principal, I often tell my staff that “all means all”, and we do not get to choose if we will reach and provide a student with the skills to be successful. If we are unable to do that, it is on us to make the changes. Those students are our mission field, and we have a professional responsibility to grow ourselves to be aware of how they learn best.

Ready to pursue an advanced program in autism spectrum disorder? Explore our available programs and start your next journey today!

graduate program favicon

Looking for a graduate program?

We can help you find a graduate program.

Our accessible staff is dedicated to providing a smooth and supportive admissions process for busy teachers.

By subscribing you agree to receive marketing emails, and newsletters from us. See privacy policy.