If you're passionate about making a tangible difference in people's lives, there are several careers you can pursue to make an impact. One path you might consider is working with people with special needs. This work is extremely important and can be very rewarding. So many aspects of our world do not cater to or accommodate people who fall outside of the spectrum of what we consider normal. But people learn and operate in different ways and require different types of attention, and working to make this world a more accessible place where everyone is cared for is something that impacts lives on a daily basis.
The term "special needs" can apply to a lot of different types of people There are four main categories these needs are grouped into: physical (such as chronic asthma, epilepsy and muscular dystrophy); developmental (such as down syndrome, dyslexia and autism); behavioral (such as ADHD); and sensory impaired (blind, deaf, visually impaired and hearing impaired). People that fall into these different categories have very distinct needs, so they require very different treatment in a lot of different areas. That means that people from many different backgrounds may pursue jobs that fall under this category, and you may have a specific kind of special need that you focus on in your career. Regardless of your specialization, if you're a patient, compassionate person with excellent communication and caregiving skills, one of these career paths might be for you.
What careers work with special needs?
There are a number of careers that work with and specialize in different special needs. Here is a sample of some of the career paths available to you.
1. Special education teacher
Special education teachers enhance the learning experience of people with special needs. They work in schools or in children's homes and cater to the child's pace and specific learning needs to foster growth and creativity. Good, supportive teachers are essential to our success, and teachers in special education work to set up children with special needs for success in a learning environment they can thrive in.
The average salary of a special education teacher is $59,780 per year (Bureau of Labor Statistics).
2. Social worker
Social workers help all kinds of people in different situations to improve their lives, using emotional or psychological support, therapy or resources. They can work with children or adults, in a school or school system, at a hospital or at home. Social workers who specifically work with people with special needs help them improve and support their social and psychological functioning, whatever those needs may be. Social workers commonly work with people on the autism spectrum to help them integrate into social life in whatever capacity necessary. They also work with the person's family to discuss methods of support at home.
Social workers earn an average of $49,470 per year (BLS).
3. Occupational therapist
Depending on the special needs people have, they often experience some difficulties exercising independence and functioning within a society catered to what is considered the norm. Occupational therapists work with people with special needs to build skills that will support independence, from basic necessities like going to the toilet, eating and writing for people who have trouble doing those things on their own. They can work with all kinds of people, of all ages.
The average annual salary of an occupational therapist is $84,270 (BLS).
4. Developmental psychologist
Developmental psychologists work closely with children with special needs, studying and interacting with them to understand the best treatment, therapy and coping mechanisms for them and people like them. They also inform teachers and parents on the best approaches for treating children with the attention and support they require to succeed.
Developmental psychologists make an average of $67,985 per year (PayScale).
5. School counselor
Particularly for students on the special needs spectrum who attend regular schools and are high-functioning enough to succeed in that environment with the right amount of support, school counselors can play an integral role in students' lives and experiences. For children with learning disabilities, a school counselor can be a liaison between the student and the administration to ensure the student is accommodated as necessary in the classroom. They can also be a resource for any social issues that might arise for special needs students, as well as help with college plans and post-education transitions.
School counselors make $56,310 per year on average (BLS).
6. Applied behavior analyst
Applied behavior analysts are psychologists that work specifically with children with autism. They work to understand the relationship between a child's behavior and their environment, with the goal of working with the child and their family to adapt the behavior and increase the child's independence.
Applied behavior analysts earn $95,200 per year on average (ZipRecruiter).
7. Speech-language pathologist
This job is specific to certain kinds of special needs, including some people on the autism spectrum and other people with developmental or sensory special needs who experience difficulty with language and communication. Speech-language pathologists work with people to improve their language skills or develop alternative ways of communicating. They can work in schools, at doctors' offices or in private practices and usually work with patients individually.
The median salary of a speech-language pathologists is $77,510 annually (BLS).
8. Sign language interpreter
Specifically working with people who are deaf or have impaired hearing, sign language teachers and interpreters are incredibly impactful in increasing the accessibility of spaces to people with this type of sensory needs. They can work personally, with a specific person who needs an interpreter in daily situations, or at events translating speeches, concerts or awards shows.
Sign language interpreters make a median salary of $48,459 annually (Glassdoor).
What qualifications do I need to work with special needs?
The qualifications needed to work with people with special needs differ by job, with some requiring more credentials than others. Across the board, having a bachelor's degree is a standard requirement, particularly for positions in special education. Special education teachers also might require further education, and most schools prefer candidates with master's degrees specializing in education for special needs. If you know this field of work is the one for you, a master's degree definitely makes you a stronger and more prepared candidate. Alternatively (or additionally), you can pursue an internship or practicum with an organization doing the particular work you're interested in. For teachers, this is required and must be completed in a classroom setting.
In addition to educational expectations, people working with special needs may be required to get a license to work in their field. All 50 states require special education teachers to get licensed, a process that involves completing the training and education requirements set by your state, in addition to a comprehensive exam in some states. Outside of education, there doesn't seem to be a standardized license for people working with special needs, but you must be certified in your field to whatever degree is necessary to practice. Depending on your job, this can mean getting a license to practice, completing a certification or pursuing a specialized master's degree.
What skills are necessary for working with special needs?
While there are many different jobs you can have working with people with special needs, there are some core skills and qualities that successful people in all of those careers have in common.
People with special needs often do, learn and communicate things in different ways than you may be used to. As a person working with special needs, you need to have a high level of patience. Your job may be frustrating at times, but it can be rewarding, too.
• First aid.
Some individuals with special needs may also have medical needs that you need to be prepared to handle if an incident occurs. Having first aid training – and, often, CPR as well, is advisable if you're working in this field.
People with special needs often approach things differently than people who fall under the norm, which can lead to a lot of innovative thinking and out-of-the-box ideas. You need to have an open mind and be willing to think creatively.
Having training in therapy is helpful, even if you're not a therapist. Therapists learn compassion, sensitivity and empathy, as well as different approaches to talking to people that instigate productive communication and dialogue.
If you're considering pursuing a career working with people with special needs, odds are your skills are in high demand. These careers are all in need of people with the capacity to give a lot of hard work and energy toward supporting people with special needs in all aspects of their lives. If you choose one of these careers or one of the many others in this field, you will be directly impacting lives and working to make the world a better place for everyone.