The Opportunities for Investors in Autism Services

The Opportunities for Investors in Autism Services

By Ronit Molko, Ph.D., BCBA-D

The landscape for investment opportunities in autism services is growing and changing at a dizzying pace. As the diagnosis rate of children identified with autism spectrum disorder approaches 2.5 percent—nearly tripling since 2002—the demand for services is mushrooming.

The marketplace is also beginning to demand more sophisticated models of care and opportunities for autistic individuals. There have been multiple recent acquisitions of autism service providers and the land grab continues.

Considered the gold standard for autism treatment modalities, reimbursement for ABA is now mandated in 46 states, twice as many as in 2010. ABA is a scientifically-validated approach that encourages family involvement in treatment. ABA focuses on techniques that bring about positive changes in behavior, particularly in improving individuals’ abilities to care for themselves.

Recent acquisitions—including FFL’s investment in ALP, Blackstone’s investment in CARD, TA’s investment in BHW, and many others—illustrate the intense, continued interest in this sector. Although valuations are high and questions persist about the quality of management at many providers, other large investors are reported to be shaking the trees, searching for the best point of entry into the industry.

The investment space is not yet mature, making this the time to get in. Industry leaders are just now beginning to recognize the need for standardized outcome measurements that reflect the actual experiences of autistic children as they grow into adults.

Autism services offer investors interested in social impact a financially profitable opportunity. The autism services industry is badly fragmented, typically characterized by well-intentioned, clinically-focused, but inefficient businesses lacking the ability to attract top staff or scale and manage growth. It is primed for savvy-but-conscientious investors who can improve outcomes while generating a financial return on investment.

The combination of good business practices, shrewd servant leadership and focus on clinical outcomes can improve both the bottom line and the lives of people with autism spectrum disorder.

The autism services industry is ready to reward investors who bring those three together, which is why we’re already seeing the leading edge develop in a big way.

autism

Individuals with Autism Need Love Too

One of the most persistent misconceptions about people with autism spectrum disorder is that they are automatons without emotion. This arises from the fact that autism is at its core a communication disorder. People on the spectrum often struggle to show emotion, which can give the impression that they are uncaring.

Studies have shown that people with autism can have even more capacity for feelings than neurotypical people but lack the ability to express them.

In fact, the desire to connect with others and build satisfying relationships is universal, even for those whose style of communicating is not typical.

For adults on the autism spectrum, dating and romance are fraught with challenges. Dating is a complex, abstract dance whose rules are sometimes irrational and difficult to understand. For people already facing difficulty communicating and reading social cues, it can be maddening.

In addition, some of the subtle social cues – and even some of the more overt – can elude an individual on the autism spectrum. They might not realize that it is inappropriate to pursue a romance with someone already in a relationship, or who has expressed that they are not interested, or who is in a teacher or caregiver role or is under 16. The result can be humiliating and confounding.

Movies, YouTube tutorials, and websites dedicated to dating and romance for people with disabilities like autism spectrum disorder proliferate on the Internet. Among the most searched autism-related questions on the web is about whether people with autism can get married. (Of course they can, and many do.) At UCLA, a program called PEERS teaches social interaction skills to teens and young adults with autism spectrum disorder.

Despite this, most autism services are aimed at early intervention. Very little formal treatment addresses the topic of dating and romance for people on the spectrum, even though this is an essential part of a happy life.

Because the young adults targeted by the PEER program think concretely, many of their lessons lay out step-by-step guidance for how to act in various situations, including dating. Covered topics include how to ease into conversation and establish rapport before proffering a date request, and how to smile an appropriately coy smile, rather than a toothy grin when flirting.

Many individuals on the spectrum have an aversion to touching, though this varies widely from person to person. For many neurotypical adults, it would be difficult to date someone unable or uninterested in physical displays of affection.

With Valentine’s Day right around the corner, let’s not forget that people with disabilities possess the same innate need for love – platonic and romantic – as the rest of us. They may just express it differently.

To read more about the challenges facing the autism services industry plus ways we can advance care and improve outcomes for these individuals, check out my book!