Specializing in Autism Spectrum Disorders

Increased diagnoses call for more trained SLPs.

Autism awareness has come a long way in an incredibly short time. From being identified by psychiatrist Leo Kanner in 1943 simply as “an obsessive desire for sameness,” to gaining an individual listing in the DSM-III in 1980, to the elimination of separate autism and Asperger’s entries and creation of a single autism spectrum disorder (ASD) listing in the DSM-5 in 2013, autism has quickly moved from being an unfamiliar diagnosis to a common topic of conversation in both the medical community and the general public.1

Naturally, an increase in awareness has led to an increase in diagnoses. In 2000, an estimated 1 in 150 children had an autism diagnosis, which increased to 1 in 68 in 2012.2 Before appearing in the DSM-III, an autism diagnosis was essentially unattainable, leaving entire generations without the possibility of diagnosis.

With an increase in diagnoses, there is a simultaneously growing need for healthcare professionals who specialize in this developmental spectrum disorder — particularly SLPs.


Apart from the certifications required for all SLPs, there is no specific educational background required for an SLP to work with individuals on the autism spectrum in the United States. Experience with patients on the autism spectrum during your clinical placements is recommended, but not required.

“Some of my clients during my clinical placements were on the autism spectrum, so I got some experience and guidance there,” shared Adrianna Lazzara, MS, CCC-SLP, speech-language pathologist at Phoenix Children’s Hospital. “The majority of my experience came outside of school.”

If you’re already several years into your career as an SLP and want to begin working with patients with ASD, there are many continuing education units (CEUs) available to help you shift the focus of your career. ASHA provides a list of available CEUs on its website, including a list of CEUs focused on autism and developmental disorders.

Still, it’s important to remember that adding ASD to your area of expertise doesn’t have to mean abandoning other patients. For many SLPs, including Lazzara, children on the spectrum only make up a small percentage of the patients they see.


Every patient is unique, so there isn’t a “one-size-fits-all” approach to speech therapy with patients on the autism spectrum. While all individuals on the autism spectrum do have some level of communication issues, the extent of those issues varies.

“Every child with ASD is so different,” said Lazzara. “The two major areas we address are feeding and speech. Some children with autism have difficulty with oral motor skills, such as chewing or tongue range of motion. Other times, we just work on sitting at the table to eat. With speech therapy, we focus on all forms of communication. Depending on the child’s needs, it may be augmentative and alternative communication, American Sign Language, articulation, language, pragmatics, etc.”

In addition to working with patients with a wide range of communication issues, SLPs who specialize in autism can play many different roles, including:

  • Screening individuals with language and communication difficulties
  • Acting as part of a diagnostic team to identify the presence of ASD
  • Making decisions about the management of ASD for individual patients, school programs or larger practices
  • Developing treatment plans
  • Providing treatment and documenting progress
  • Training individuals with ASD and their families in the use of augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) devices
  • Advocating for individuals with ASD and their families.3-4

Rewarding Career Path

Undeniably, a career as an SLP who specializes in ASD comes with its challenges. As a spectrum disorder, you can expect every patient you meet to have different levels of communication difficulties, different expectations and different potential ability.

“I think the biggest benefit that comes from working with children on the spectrum is the personal reward and the relationship you build with that child and his or her family,” said Lazzara. “Every child with ASD is so different.  I enjoy the challenge of learning what motivates each child, which behavior modifications work for them, what their sensory needs are, what they find funny, what the family goals are, etc.”

While a career in autism-focused speech therapy isn’t for everyone, those who do take their careers in this direction are sure to find it to be a rewarding move.


  1. The New England Journal of Medicine. Autism at 70 – from Kanner to DSM-5. Autism Speaks. 2013.
  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Autism spectrum disorder data and statistics. 2016.
  3. Autism Speaks. What treatments are available for speech, language and motor issues?
  4. American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. Autism spectrum disorder: roles and responsibilities. 2016.

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