The shortage of clinicians who specialize in autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDDs) has been in the making for years, as ASD continues to increase in prevalence.
The CDC recently reported, based on 2020 data, that the prevalence of autism spectrum disorder in the United States has risen to an all-time high of 1 in 36 children; in California, the number is now 1 in 22.
Despite the growing prevalence, the shortage of providers who truly understand ASD and IDD populations is lacking. While plenty of clinicians have behavioral health and applied behavioral analysis (ABA) training, many don’t have specific experience with these unique populations and their challenges and needs, something experts in the field say is sorely needed to help avoid a one-size-fits-all, ABA-for-everyone approach. That’s true for registered behavior technicians fresh from high school to psychologists who lack the know-how to do a differential assessment.
The Changing ASD and IDD Care Landscape
While in-home ABA treatment delivered up to 40 hours a week was long considered the gold standard for care, Catalight has a broader view and perspective. Newer research is showing the number of hours is not an indicator of success and high hours, which can be stressful for children and families, are not needed for meaningful progress.  Driven by the expertise of a multi-disciplinary team of clinicians and researchers and its data-driven approach to care, Catalight is leading the national conversation in recognizing the increasingly heterogenous ASD and IDD population is not well served by a one-size-fits-all approach to treatment.
Instead, Catalight has expanded exploration into new modalities of care, such as Parent-Led ABA and focused on new ways to measure value and outcomes. For example, Catalight has developed wellbeing measures focused on whole-person, whole-family care instead of outward behaviors to track progress and outcomes.
That also offers a chance to help expand access; with the growing need, not everyone can get practitioner-led ABA care in a timely manner. The days of ASD and IDD care as a uniform experience are coming to an end among forward-thinking organizations like Catalight. Catalight has long recognized the ASD and IDD populations are composed of unique individuals with widely varied characteristics and care needs. Catalight’s innovative approaches to care, such as Parent-Led ABA, have been shown to be just as effective as practitioner-led and can help improve access while offering other benefits like improved parental self-efficacy.
For new ASD and IDD practitioners, that means opportunities to do what draws many to the healthcare field in the first place: recognizing people’s unique needs and supporting them with person-centered care that will help get them on the path that is right for them. It also means being on the front line as the industry reshapes the gold standard for ASD and IDD care.
The Many Possibilities for Up-and-Coming Behavioral Health Care Practitioners
From entry-level positions to careers for people with advanced clinical training and education, the need in the ASD and IDD space has driven plenty of opportunity. Compensation for roles like board certified behavior analysts has risen in recent years to a national average of $87,000, with nearly 200,000 jobs advertised on a popular recruiting site.
Softer benefits have improved too. The healthcare workforce shortage has driven provider networks and organizations to rethink benefits and training opportunities to help retain talent and guide entry-level and paraprofessionals along their career pathways. Some organizations are offering unique opportunities like travel positions, akin to traveling nurses, but for autism care.
Becoming an ASD and IDD care provider can provide good compensation and benefits. But it’s also high-impact work in a fast-growing field, and, while often demanding, can be deeply rewarding as well. Brianna Fitchett, MA, BCBA, one of Catalight’s clinicians, tells the story of how she knew she had found her calling: She was providing ABA therapy in-home and working with a little boy who had limited language, when he uttered “mama” for the first time. “His mom just lost it,” she said. “That was the moment, I said yes, this is it. I’m hooked. I want to see that reaction for families with every kid I work with.'”
Getting Started in Purposeful, Successful Behavioral Health Careers
First, it’s important to assess whether you have what it takes to specialize in ASD and IDD care. Passion for the work and population is critical. A drive to further clinical and research findings are important, too as ASD and IDD are booming areas of research in which best practices and modalities of care are evolving.
Second, ensure the organization has a structure that allows time to work with a mentor. This goes beyond offering great clinical and organizational supervision and is focused on the employee’s professional growth and personal wellbeing.
Third, it’s critical to find the right employment environment. Look for a provider network or employer who emphasizes the importance of being an outcomes-based solution, not just a therapy provider – and who truly knows the population. Catalight emphasizes employing people who are fast becoming unicorns – those who can implement the right clinical practice, know autism and can work with somebody who is autistic, whether they are licensed clinical social workers, marriage/family counselors, psychologists or other professionals.
Last, make sure the employer is on the cutting edge of autism care. Look for provider organizations that recognize the growth in this population, have strategies for tackling the need and see the vast potential of focusing on individual need over cookie-cutter care.
The ability to positively shift outcomes represents a unique opportunity to impact individuals and families in big ways with tremendously rewarding work in a well-paying field that is in high demand.