The Role of Clinical Mental Health Counselors in Autism Treatment

Most of us know someone who has been affected by autism. Maybe you have a relative on the autism spectrum or a friend with an autistic child. Autism can be challenging for families, and it can substantially limit a child’s functioning well into adulthood.

What we all have in common is a desire to help, frustration over not knowing how to do so, and (often) confusion regarding the nature of autism. Fortunately, there have been many breakthroughs in therapy for children with autism in recent years, and clinical mental health counselors are a crucial part of that therapy. People who want to help treat this condition should consider a career in clinical mental health counseling with a focus on autism.

What Is Autism?

Autism is a spectrum disorder, meaning it includes multiple conditions that vary in degree. Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) usually presents as difficulty with communication or unwanted and disabling repetitive behaviors. An article titled “What Is Autism?” at explains: “ASD can be associated with intellectual disability, difficulties in motor coordination and attention, and physical health issues.” Autism is not all bad news though; the article goes on to say: “Some persons with ASD excel in visual skills, music, math and art.”

Autism research suggests that ASD is a brain development issue, and symptoms usually start to manifest in children between two and three years old. Just a few years ago, no one really knew what caused ASD, though new information points to genetic risks and certain environmental factors. The environmental factors identified so far are the parents’ age at conception, the health of the mother during pregnancy and difficulties during birth. Just as genetics do not always predict ASD, environmental factors also cannot accurately predict autism. Research has yet to discover clear and definitive causation.

The number of children with autism is growing: according to the CDC, one in 68 children in the U.S. is diagnosed with ASD, which is 10 times the incidence from 40 years ago. The reason for the increase in still unclear, and speculation about it often causes heated debate. Ongoing research is shedding more light on the causes and treatments, but we still have a long way to go.

Early Assessment Is Vital to Positive Outcomes

Researchers are looking for ways to diagnose the disorder earlier, as therapies tend to be more effective the earlier they begin. It is up to professional counselors to make these assessments, suggest possible treatment options and begin the appropriate therapy. Research shows that earlier diagnosis correlates with greater positive outcomes and a reduction in the severity of the disorder. Assessments must be thorough, and they must take place in different settings on different days. A paper titled “Autism Spectrum Disorder” by Sheperis, Mohr, and Ammons notes that, “Because autism is a spectrum, the assessment process for autism should be individualized to each child’s needs, address various areas of [development] and be multidisciplinary.”

A Few Treatment Strategies

Clinical mental health counselors may use various treatments and therapies based on the severity of symptoms, the age of the child and the child’s placement on the spectrum. Here are a few useful therapies for children with ASD.

    • Applied Behavior Analysis. According to, “Behavioral analysis is a scientifically validated approach to understanding behavior and how it is affected by the environment.” An article from adds, “Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) is the application of the principles of learning and motivation from Behavioral Analysis, and the procedures and technology derived from those principles.” Most autism interventions have some basis in ABA.
    • Verbal Behavior Therapy. This therapy teaches communication skills to students with autism. As ASD involves, in part, problems with communication, this is a crucial therapy. This therapy — using the principles of ABA — helps therapists introduce, practice and reinforce different aspects of communication.
    • Social Pragmatic Strategies. Many children with autism struggle in social situations and interactions. Clinical mental health counselors help improve social interactions by involving people and things the child is already comfortable with.

Clinical mental health counselors who work with autistic children are crucial to improving outcomes — both for those with the disorder and for their families. The Master of Education in Clinical Mental Health Counseling at Lamar University is perfect for those who want to work with people who have an autism spectrum disorder. Students can complete this degree online, adding convenience to the long list of benefits of earning an M.Ed. in Clinical Mental Health Counseling.

Learn more about the Lamar University online M.Ed. in Clinical Mental Health Counseling program.


National Board for Certified Counselors: Certified Clinical Mental Health Counselor

Best Counseling Degrees: What Kind of Counselor Works With Children on the Autism Spectrum?

Sheperis, C. J., Mohr, D., & Ammons, R. (2014, December). Autism Spectrum Disorder. American Counseling Association: Practice Briefs, 1-6.

CDC: Identified Prevalence of Autism Spectrum Disorder

Autism Speaks: How Is Autism Treated?

Autism Speaks: Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA)

International Journal of Clinical and Health Psychology: Prediction of Treatment Outcomes and Longitudinal Analysis in Children With Autism Undergoing Intensive Behavioral Intervention

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