School Social Workers and ASD Competency

By Jami Imhof, LCSW-C


According to the CDC, Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a neurodevelopmental disorder which currently affects 1 in 54 children in the United States (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2020). With increased screening of children and greater knowledge and education of the disorder, rates of diagnosis continue to increase across the country. ASD manifests as symptoms that impact the areas of communication, social interaction, and behavior.

With the current rate of ASD in our country, a school social worker is at an increased chance of interacting with a student that has autism. Because a social worker in the school setting may work with both general education and special education students, a competent understanding of ASD must be a part of the social worker’s toolkit. Understanding the symptoms of ASD, clinical best practices to serve students, and challenges that may affect a family allow a social worker to appropriately serve students and their families.

Think about the students that are currently on your caseload – how many of those students either have an autism diagnosis, or are affected by autism in some way? Do they have a sibling who has autism? When we have a working knowledge of the diagnosis and can become competent in strategies to help our students and families, we help to support student success in the school setting. Below are just a few steps that you can take to introduce yourself to ASD and improve your clinical skills when serving students and their families.

Seek Supervision. If you receive a new student that has an autism diagnosis and are unsure as to what strategies to use to serve them, seek supervision. Even social workers who have obtained clinical licensure may need to seek supervision from their direct supervisors from time to time! Consulting with peers during group supervision may be helpful as well.

Educate Yourself. We live in a wonderful age of technology where we have lots of information at our fingertips, but the amount of information on the internet can also be overwhelming. Start with a national resource, such as Autism Speaks (autismspeaks.org) or the Autism Society of America (autism-society.org) for introductory information. Check for resources in your area as well. Being aware of the resources in your own community is important as you may refer families to those same resources. Seek out continuing education opportunities on the topic as well; you need those credits to renew your license, so why not really use the opportunity to educate yourself on a new topic?

Consult with Classroom Team. Do not feel like you are alone in trying to come up with strategies that serve your student. Consult with the classroom staff and any related services that are involved with the student. Two (or more) heads are better than one! By developing a team approach, it also helps to ensure consistency among all providers in the school setting.

Ask the Student and Family. Collaborating with the student and family is a must! The student can share their likes and dislikes, and perhaps a strategy they really enjoyed at a previous school. Collaborating with the family is important to provide consistency between school and home. The student may receive services outside of the school day, and the family can share what strategies they see are helpful at home. Since the demands at home and school are different, not all strategies may work across both settings, but it is important to be aware of what has been trialed.

Keep It Visual. People that have autism think visually and tend to “see” things in their mind in pictures rather than words. During a counseling session, too much written or spoken language could become overwhelming for some people. Using visual strategies to supplement counseling topics can help students to be more receptive to the information and help to retain it. Using social stories, role plays, and videos are simple ways to help work on topics.

ASD requires school social workers to be aware of basic symptoms and resources, at the very least. If you have not yet worked with a student that has autism, you may sometime in the near future, so why not be prepared?

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2020). Autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/autism/index.html


SSWAA is excited to host an upcoming webinar with Jami Imhof. Jami has been working in school settings (nonpublic, public, and charter) since 2007. She currently works with high school students who have a diagnosis of autism, who are being served in a nonpublic, special education setting. Jami is currently pursuing her DSW at Kutztown University; her research interest includes exploring school social workers' knowledge in the area of autism. To register for her upcoming webinar, please CLICK HERE.






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The School Social Work Association of America empowers school social workers and promotes the profession to enhance the social and emotional growth and academic outcomes of all students nationally and globally.

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