By Ronit Molko

Adoption of Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA) for children with autism spectrum disorders was a remarkable breakthrough in treatment that has changed the lives of people on the spectrum and those around them. It has helped countless individuals learn new skills and increase their ability to communicate and socialize. And while ABA among children can make a difference in adulthood, services for autistic adults need to improve and adapt. 

The larger question, though, is not whether children in therapy learn specific skills, but whether they acquire the ability to care for themselves and navigate the world in which they live. On this count, our satisfaction with the success of the autism services industry must be tempered. As much as it has progressed in the past 50 years, even the last 20 years, we cannot accept the state of autism services today. We must push ever forward to develop new innovations in the care and treatment of autistic adults so that they can create self-determined and fulfilled lives.

Autism treatment does a remarkable job of teaching children how to indicate what they want, reduce their meltdowns, identify colors, and even accomplish practical tasks like tying their shoelaces. But research shows it has largely stopped at those kinds of discrete skills.

The result is that autistic adults, even those who have enjoyed successful intervention until age 18, often cannot live independently or secure employment, struggle to develop long-term friendships and often are not making choices about their own lives.

A Drexel University study found that autistic adults are only somewhat better off than they were back in the days when they were permanently institutionalized. It found that only one in seven people with autism is employed in the community (rather than in a program for people with disabilities) and fewer than half choose their own schedules. Other studies have revealed that most people with autism don’t have a single friend who is not a relative or caregiver.

For all the advances in treatment, this is an unhealthy state of affairs. Not surprisingly, the Drexel research found that adults with autism suffer a plethora of physical and emotional issues like anxiety, depression, and obesity. They are often lonely and their lives are dictated by others.

A big part of the problem is the lack of commitment in the industry to measuring consistent and relevant long-term outcomes of intervention. This provides a real opportunity to investors and entrepreneurs who seek to enter an industry for social as well as financial gain. A few large providers committed to long-horizon outcomes standardized across the field could alter the delivery of services for the benefit of over three million people with autism currently receiving services.

The revolution I am suggesting will take the expertise of many; a willingness to hold ourselves accountable and be held accountable by payers; dedication to a long, arduous process of developing and sharing relevant measures; and, frankly the clout that major investors and large service providers can bring. But the rewards would be immense. Better service and meaningful long-term outcomes yield lower costs ultimately,  growth and higher return on investment, as well as improved lives for people with autism and their caregivers.

The opportunity exists right now for service providers to differentiate themselves by attending to understanding the long-term outcomes and utility of today’s services. With the current frenzy of investment activity, the landscape is changing faster than ever. We risk having our mission and service delivery commitment dictated by individuals outside the service provider community if we do not pay attention the our science, our practice and how we are impacting the lives of these autistic individuals and their families.

For further reading on how you can make an impact and change lives, check out my book, Autism Matters.