A Different Kind of Autism Awareness Month

A Different Kind of Autism Awareness Month

April is Autism Awareness Month, but unfortunately we will not see a Walk for Autism, Autism 5K, cookie fundraisers or Awareness Day celebrations during this extraordinary and unprecedented time.

That doesn’t obviate the need or desire to increase awareness and understanding of autism throughout our country – and the world. It just requires some creativity to penetrate the consciousness of a population whose attention may be focused on the Coronavirus pandemic, social distancing and flattening the curve.

This is the 48th anniversary of the first Autism Month and in that time awareness has indeed exploded in concert with the incidence of the condition. Yet there is much work to be done before communities and policy makers have a firm grasp of the abilities, challenges and needs of autistic individuals. While the Covid-19 pandemic is a sudden global health issue today, autism is a daily global health issue that has been growing for decades and will continue into the future.

To recognize Autism Awareness Month while maintaining a safe distance from others will require individual initiative  and creativity this year. Here are just a few suggestions for actions you can take to promote understanding of autism and autistic individuals.

1. Find Events That Have Been Moved Online

Not all events have been cancelled. For example, the South Austin Support Group in Texas has been moved to Google Hangouts, where parents and caregivers can find a supportive community to discuss issues they face. A similar group in El Paso has been moved to Zoom, where participants can see and talk to each other in real time.

2. Share Best Practices with Others

You likely know people in your community who struggle with the issues around autism, whether they are autistic adults, parents of children with autism, caregivers or others. Take this time to reach out to one or more of your neighbors to lend support and trade tips you have discovered.

3. Celebrate Your Child’s Accomplishments

With all the stressors that Covid-19 brings, it is easy for parents to become despondent about their children’s progress. More than ever, this is a time to appreciate whatever strides your children have achieved. Take a little time each day to congratulate yourself and celebrate your child for the progress they have made.

4. Educate Your Co-Workers About Autism

You may be reticent about sharing your personal issues with co-workers, but Autism Awareness Month provides an opportunity to make an exception. And while you may not be working alongside your co-workers these days, you’re probably still communicating with them extensively. Discussion of the effect of distancing, school closures, and changes in routines on home life is the perfect entrée to a short education of the challenges and triumphs of having a child with autism.

5. Join a Webinar

Catch up with the April 4 webinar Autistic Explosion with Dr. James Coplan, who employs 3D modeling to illustrate the scope and types of autism. It has been recorded and is available online.

6. Support an Autism-Friendly Business

Families for Effective Autism Treatment in Louisville has created a registry of autism-friendly businesses in their area. Verywell Health, an online resource for medical information, has compiled a list of autism-friendly national businesses that includes companies whose products and services you could be purchasing now, like Microsoft, Home Depot, Walgreens, Ford and Smile Biscotti. These companies are intentional about hiring and training autistic individuals.

7. Lobby Your Legislators for Changes During the Covid-19 Crisis

Writing for Spectrum News, disability rights activist Ari Ne’eman has identified several legal constraints on caregiving to people with disabilities, including autism. He encourages others to lobby for removing caps on worker overtime, permitting family members to serve as support workers, preventing “temporary” institutional placements and ensuring continued oversight of group homes and other institutions for the disabled. Read the entire article here.

8. Focus on Your Child

The best advocacy any parent can do is with their own child. Advocacy takes place with your child’s teachers, in your neighborhood, on the playground, at the City Council, or anywhere others need to be educated about autism and persuaded to treat autistic children appropriately.

9. Make Every Month Autism Awareness Month

With two percent of children born today on the spectrum, ignorance and misunderstanding of the issues affecting autistic individuals will have significant and long-term ramifications for our nation. Let’s work to improve awareness and insight year-round.

Published by: Ronit Molko, Ph.D., BCBA-D

Advisor to Behavioral Health & Autism Investors; Author; Advancing Quality of Life for Autistic Individuals
Why Businesses Should Care About ADA Website Accessibility

Why Businesses Should Care About ADA Website Accessibility

Following up on my previous post about the relationship between technology and autism services, I want to revisit my discussion with Daryn Harpaz, an ADA website accessibility and compliance consultant and CEO of ZenythGroup. During this extraordinary time of sheltering in place due to COVID-19 , it is particularly pertinent to focus on the accessibility of technology, which is powering all of our online interactions.

More than ever, the services available on websites must be accessible to everyone, including those with disabilities, now that online platforms are our primary method of communication and commerce.

Daryn and I discussed the current state of affairs with respect to online accessibility issues for disabled individuals, which I have noted as merely the tip of the iceberg in the urgent question of inclusivity in the Internet age.

You can read Part 1 of my review of that discussion in which Daryn revealed that it does not appear that businesses generally have prioritized accessibility of their websites, and that has cost them in terms of brand loyalty, sales and litigation. On the Federal level, a lawsuit is filed every hour against businesses whose services on the web are inaccessible to the disability community.

“We’re looking at 15% of the world’s population with a disability – that’s over a billion people, of which 61 million are in America,” Daryn notes. This is a massive cohort to write off. Excluding those with age-related issues, individuals with disabilities purchase half-a-trillion dollars in goods and services annually. They are also fiercely brand loyal to businesses that cater to their needs, and now businesses are finding that they are also willing to use the courts for relief. Losing their support is a colossal missed opportunity and—in those cases in which legal action is involved—can be very expensive to defend.

Target discovered the pain of ignoring the accessibility issue when it paid an estimated $10 million in fees and remediation to settle a lawsuit filed by a prospective customer who could not navigate its e-commerce platform. That says nothing of the loss of brand equity the company suffered, particularly in the disability community.

The business imperative tends to spur businesspeople to act, and so Daryn reminds them that, “more than 85% of websites that are visited do not provide an inclusive experience. And we know that over 80% of people with disabilities say that they would return to a website if it was accessible and they would shop more often and support that brand.”

ZenythGroup offers businesses critical services to help them achieve full digital accessibility and remain compliant with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). After manually auditing websites and online platforms by using people with disabilities to provide real-world testing, the firm provides corrective measures to meet WCAG best-practice standards. Thereafter, he says, compliance is a critical, ongoing need because websites are fluid and require continual monitoring.

Ultimately, this is a problem not of technology, but of the heart. Here’s how Daryn put it:

“If you are, as a business, catering to society, regardless of ability, you’re going to succeed as a company. And if a business owner could meet, engage or otherwise interact with the disability community, I believe that they would see the human aspects of this and want to do better. It shouldn’t have to be under the requirements of a lawsuit or the threat of penalties and fees to want to do better. Instead, we should be enabling our community from a social aspect to be integrated and inclusive. And I think that says a lot about where we need to move in the direction of disabilities in general.”

It’s worth mentioning that a myriad of accessibility widgets and overlay solutions are now available on the Internet for download and claim to offer an easy-fix. However, being that these widgets are automated, they miss the majority of WCAG issues and are often confusing and challenging for people with disabilities to interact with.

While overlay solutions can play an initial role in providing a short-term patch, this band aid approach will only deliver minimal accessibility. Core WCAG issues must be resolved via manual testing, code remediation and continuous accessibility best-practices.

Daryn reminds organizations to work with a reputable accessibility company that can ensure your organization achieves and maintains ADA compliance with hands-on feedback from the disability community, ongoing manual testing, and a mature process that mitigates risk.

Ronit Molko, Ph.D., BCBA-D, is an Autism Industry authority, speaker, and ForbesBooks author of Autism Matters.
Follow me on Twitter or LinkedIn. Check out my website or some of my other work here.

Dr. Ronit Molko on Investing in the Autism Services Industry

Middle Market Growth – A Qualified Opinion

Dr. Ronit Molko is the founder and CEO of Empowering Synergy, a provider of specialist health care and consulting services for private equity investors and service providers with a focus on the autism, traumatic brain injury, home health and senior health care sectors of behavioral health. A licensed clinical psychologist and board-certified behavior analyst, Molko is the co-founder of Autism Spectrum Therapies, which she led until 2014, and author of the book “Autism Matters: Empowering Investors, Providers and the Autism Community
to Advance Autism Services.” Molko corresponded with MMG about M&A activity in the autism services industry.

“ALTHOUGH RELATIVELY NEW TO AUTISM SERVICES, PRIVATE EQUITY PLAYS AN IMPORTANT ROLE IN THE INDUSTRY.”

Q How much M&A activity is happening in the autism services industry?
A There has been a dramatic increase in M&A activity. Over the past five years, there were over 75 transactions. Last year saw the highest
activity, with 25 deals completed. Now there are over 20 “platform” companies looking to scale services organically, expand into new markets, and acquire smaller competitors. Over 80% of the service provider market remains highly fragmented and it’s still in an early growth phase, supporting the rationale for consolidation. Even more deal flow is expected in 2020.

Q What’s driving M&A and private equity investment in this industry?
A Increasing demand for services is one driver. The incidence of autism has continued to grow—today, 1 in 59 children in the U.S. is diagnosed with autism. The demand for support and services still far outweighs the supply of providers. Additionally, the funding for autism services has expanded considerably. In 2019, Tennessee became the 50th state to require health benefit plans to cover medically necessary treatment for autism. Although relatively new to autism services, private equity plays an important role in the industry. Because the market is relatively unsophisticated from an operational perspective, investors are providing capital needed for growth and expansion of services,
managing risk and compliance, and professionalizing the industry from a business and operational standpoint.

Q What are some of the risks of investing in autism services providers?
A Talent and data present two key risks in this industry. Registered behavior technicians and board-certified behavior analysts are the drivers for growth and service delivery, yet the industry has faced challenges with both groups. There is high turnover among registered behavior technicians, who provide daily intervention in clients’ homes, in a clinic or center, or a hybrid. Annualized attrition rates range from 50% to 125% for the in-home service delivery model. For center-based services, attrition rates can be as low as 10% to 15% and up to 50% to 60% for small providers.

Board-certified behavior analysts make up the supervisor tier, and their credential is a requirement for commercial, federal and state funding sources. The market continues to experience a shortage of these professionals, which impacts a provider’s ability to meet the regulatory requirements of funding sources and the ethical requirements of the credentialing board. With respect to data, the autism market does not have the outcome data that is typically available in other areas of health care—such as group studies to determine the effectiveness of a medical intervention. Instead, the outcomes of autism therapy are determined individually, based on each client’s unique needs and goals. As autism services moves toward a value-based reimbursement model, the lack of widespread outcome data presents challenges in establishing new models of reimbursements and new standards of intervention and outcomes.

Q How can emerging technologies be used to improve autism services?
A Technology has the potential to improve outcomes for service providers, autistic individuals and business owners. Tools embedded with artificial intelligence and machine learning are already changing diagnostics and self-management. Companies have introduced wearable technologies to help adults manage daily activities, such as navigating their environment, coping with anxiety and interacting socially. Meanwhile, several companies are piloting technologies to diagnose autism in one session, a diagnostic process that now can take up to a year. Technology will also transform the service provider market. Existing technological tools for practice management and business optimization are marginally adequate at best. They largely do not support effective daily data dashboards and predictive analytics, and most companies are still managing their businesses with limited real-time operational visibility. Many providers are attempting to develop technologies to manage the nuanced aspects of clinical programming, data collection and reporting, compliance and employee activities,
and operational aspects such as scheduling.

Dr. Ronit Molko on Investing in the Autism Services Industry

Dr. Ronit Molko on Investing in the Autism Services Industry

Amid the increasing prevalence of autism, PE investors can help professionalize the industry and improve outcomes

Dr. Ronit Molko, founder and principal of Empowering Synergy, spoke with MMG Editor Kathryn Mulligan about the expanding market for autism services and the role that private equity firms play in helping companies in this industry grow, improve business processes, and ultimately drive better outcomes.

The prevalence of autism in the United States is increasing rapidly. According to the Centers for Disease Control, about 1 in 59 children has been identified as having autism spectrum disorder as of 2014, up from 1 in 68 in 2012. Yet even as the need is rising for services—such as helping with daily living skills, improving attention, and more—the industry has struggled to demonstrate long-term outcomes, and it faces unique challenges that include billing fraud and high levels of staff attrition.

In her role at Empowering Synergy, Dr. Molko helps private equity investors understand the industry’s challenges and opportunities, which she discusses on the podcast. She is the author of a book on the topic, “Autism Matters: Empowering Investors, Providers, and the Autism Community to Advance Autism Services.”

“The industry really needs to focus on long-term outcomes and teaching kids the skills they need for adulthood when they’re younger. That’s a big gap in the market.”

To hear more interviews with middle-market influencers, subscribe to the Middle Market Growth Conversations podcast on iTunes and Google Play.

Examining website accessibility under the ADA

The Current State of Website Accessibility for Disabled Individuals – Zenyth Group CEO Daryn Harpaz

The relationship between technology and autism services has been a focus of my thinking and writing lately. It’s an urgent topic that I feel deserves attention, but it’s also led me to a broader conversation about inclusivity (or lack thereof) of technology for the larger disabled community. As our lives become increasingly enmeshed with technology—phones at our fingertips, brick and mortar retail locations rapidly disappearing, the supremacy of social media and e-commerce—the need for technology that can accommodate the disabled community is at once something that must be a priority, yet is often either left ignored by businesses or unaddressed because they lack the knowledge and ability to make their websites ADA compliant.

In search of more information about this landscape and the “state-of-play” when it comes to websites and online life generally becoming more accessible for disabled individuals, I spoke with WCAG (Website Content Accessibility Guidelines) Compliance Specialist and Founder and CEO of ZenythGroup, Daryn Harpaz. Our conversation revealed some curious information, statistics that should scare and incentivize business leaders, and insights that should give us all a better idea about the status quo informing current inclusivity efforts for disabled individuals online.

The first thing to know is that it’s impossible to have this discussion without mentioning the Americans with Disabilities Act which passed in 1990. As Daryn explained it, officially, there is no legislation holding private sector websites accountable for accessibility, as the law predated the prevalence of the internet as we use it today. However, guidelines put together by the World Wide Web Consortium have essentially been adopted as precedent, and those guidelines are confirmed by the Department of Justice. Lawsuits pursuant to accessibility compliance are being upheld by the courts, so while nothing is instantiated by law, it’s becoming a must for businesses to ensure their websites are fully accessible to the disabled community.

“Currently there’s a [accessibility] lawsuit being filed at the rate of one per hour in America. And these are lawsuits most prominently bought by the plaintiff side—a blind plaintiff who is not able to access a website using a screen reader and a keyboard,” Daryn told me. While vision impaired people (4.6% of the disabled population in America) struggling with assistive technologies online represent the majority of the lawsuits we’re seeing, guidelines cover a much wider spectrum of conditions, and so solutions need to address the same.

Individuals disabled in some way—including autistic individuals or people with epilepsy—comprise about 15% of our population in America, or 61 million people. Add to that the fact that 40% of US adults over the age of 65 have one or more disabilities (many of whom would benefit greatly from more accessible websites due to vision loss and motor functioning complexities) and the market is too large to be ignored. Yet, many businesses still aren’t addressing the issue properly.

POST WRITTEN BY Ronit Molko

Ronit Molko, Ph.D., BCBA-D, is an Autism Industry authority, speaker, and ForbesBooks author of Autism Matters.

Wiring the Growing Brain: How Habits Shape Brain Development in Youth

Wiring the Growing Brain: How Habits Shape Brain Development in Youth

The brain is a complex and wondrous organ whose basic structure is a web of electrical impulses. The early journey of brain development is vital to its functioning for the rest of its owner’s life.

Brain development begins in utero and isn’t complete until roughly age 25. A baby is born with 85 billion neurons, or nerve cells, that transmit these signals to other neurons through synapses. A web of interconnected neurons is called a neural network and is crucial to the brain’s function.

The Role of Neural Pathways

Neuroscience research has determined that the most critical ages for brain development are zero to six, when the brain is building and reinforcing the neural connections that will last a lifetime. Each new encounter a baby has with their environment through the five senses creates new neural pathways, with repeated encounters strengthening those connections. Neural pathways that are not reinforced in this manner are literally culled by the brain in favor of others. Hence the phrase “neurons that fire together, wire together”.

Because babies’ brains are in the acquisition phase, this is the critical time for positive brain stimulation. Research shows that early brain stimulation leaves positive fingerprints on the brain throughout life.

The brain also favors encounters that bring pleasure. When babies’ needs are met and expectations fulfilled, their brains are stimulated to perform optimally. When babies endure persistent negative experiences, their emotional and social development suffer, as does the ability to learn and develop language. For these reasons, early childhood experts encourage new parents to talk, sing, smile at, read to their children as much as possible; to hold, hug and snuggle with them often; and to turn everyday moments into teaching moments.

The Autistic Brain is Different

Recent research suggests the brains of autistic children are different. Their brain cells are hyper-connected, with many more neural pathways than neuro-typical children have, particularly in the area of the brain that affects sight. The more severe the symptoms of autism, the more hyper-connected the brain. These excess connections appear to be the result of a deficiency in the culling process. The brain of a neuro-typical two-year-old begins weeding out roughly half the synaptic connections it has produced. The brain of an autistic two-year-old eliminates only about one-sixth of the synaptic connections, leaving what might be understood as clutter in the brain. These remaining pathways amount to a neural overload – akin to the sensation of attempting to drink water out of a fire hose.

“Our findings suggest that the imbalance of excitation and inhibition in the local brain circuits could engender cognitive and behavioral deficits observed in autism,” said Vinod Menon, Ph.D., a Stanford researcher who co-produced the research.

The Importance of Early Detection and Treatment

This breakthrough research finding may lay the groundwork for early detection of autism and improve diagnosis and treatment. Because the brain is so plastic – able to adapt, re-wire and create new neural pathways – earlier treatment can establish new and stronger neural connections, behaviors and skills. Evidence suggests that diagnosis and treatment starting by age three confers lifelong benefits on autistic children.

The optimal time for intervention is before the second major culling period in adolescence. For children with developmental and learning disabilities, reinforcing the pathways that lead to constructive behaviors and skills must be accomplished before those synaptic connections are erased for lack of use. Stimulating the brain with positive skills and behaviors before the culling period reinforces helpful synaptic connections and allows unhelpful ones to move to the head of the line for pruning.

In this way, it becomes evident that brain performance is neither all nature nor all nurture, but a combination of genetics and experiences working together. Engagement  and contemporary, early intervention can support autistic children in learning the skills critical to leading fulfilling lives as independently as possible.

Train Your Child’s Brain

One method of re-training your child’s brain: select one simple task and practice it 10 times daily. Observe whether your child is able to complete the task faster each time. Optimize your child’s brain development by engaging with them verbally and visually during regular daily activities like playing, diaper changing, feeding and bathing.

Examples of simple instructions include “drink from the cup,” “give me that book” or “show me the train ” Opportunities to practice these one-step tasks abound during the day. For autistic children, just as for neuro-typical children, perhaps even more, everyday moments can be teaching moments. Additionally, for children determined to be at risk for a developmental disorder, early intervention is critical to capitalize on the brains’ plasticity.

By Ronit Molko, Ph.D., BCBA-D
Why Identity-First Language Matters to Autistic Individuals

Why Identity-First Language Matters to Autistic Individuals

Ronit Molko, Ph.D., BCBA-D

Are there autistic individuals in your life? Or are they people with autism? This is a critical distinction and a topic of debate in the autism community, one which recognizes that words matter and shape how we think.

Half a century ago, people with developmental disabilities were referred to using all kinds of pejorative terms. For many in the autism community, the sting of those dehumanizing terms lingers and informs their opinions on how they choose to identify themselves.

The debate happens between person-first language (people with autism) and identity-first language (autistic people). For many years, and especially in the professional and scientific communities, person-first language that acknowledges a person’s humanity first and their identity second is preferred and recommended.

The person-first preference is easy to understand. We are all people and individuals before we are our condition. Person-first language acknowledges that a person is not their condition. The condition is part of them but doesn’t define them.

But person-first language can feel cumbersome and stilted, and often offensive, especially to those at whom it is directed. And now, as we approach 25 years since the autism diagnosis became more prevalent and awareness began to increase, we have a large group of autistic adults to inform us about growing up with autism and how they see themselves in the world.

I have discussed this with many autistic individuals and their parents to better understand what this issue means to them. Many of these young adults, who often refer to themselves as self-advocates, describe that their autism is core to their identity and how they have known themselves since birth. Referring to them as a “person with autism” negates this. Many have said to me that using person-first language is designed to make me feel better, but actually dishonors who they are.

More to the point, autism is not an accusation, but a statement of fact. Autism is an inherent part of a person’s identity, just as gay, or Jewish, or female are. Before the general population can understand autism as a condition that bestows strengths as well as challenges, those in the autistic community must adopt this identity-first point of view and make their language reinforce that mindset.

In the 1960s, African Americans demanded to be described as “black,” as part of the Black Power movement. It was a point of pride, rather than a label of oppression that had scarred them for 200 years. People began chanting “Say it loud; I’m black and proud!” With this shift, blackness became and remains a core aspect of that community’s identity. Those activists restored power, and thus humanity, to “black” as an identifier.

Using the term “autistic person” or “autistic individual,” as I do in my written and oral presentations, affirms the value of the autistic identity. Individuals don’t have autism, the way they have the flu, they are autistic, a condition that describes the wiring of their brain and suggests the unique, complex and interesting individual they are.

Six Ways Technology Due Diligence Failure Can Kill Your Private Equity Investment

Six Ways Technology Due Diligence Failure Can Kill Your Private Equity Investment

No matter what market you’re in, technology is a significant element of your business. Taxi companies learned this when Uber and Lyft employed sophisticated apps to topple their industry. Prior to the emergence of those two frame-breaking enterprises, few in the taxi industry would have considered themselves in the technology business.

Even a high-touch industry, like autism services, invests significant intellectual and monetary resources into computers, databases, practice management, and other critical technology.

These systems and the people who run them are often overlooked when investors conduct due diligence before acquiring autism businesses. But they do so at considerable risk.

A 2007 study at the University of Virginia found that two-thirds of mergers and acquisitions fail to deliver their expected returns. More recent research (2016, 2017) shows this number as ranging between 50 and 85 percent. Much of this is due to poor integration of cultures and business practices. A significant piece of this is systems and technology.

In my work with private equity firms, I frequently encounter this problem. Investors acquire platform companies comprising multiple businesses that have been acquired and consolidated in a relatively short period of time. Frequently, each of the businesses within this platform is using different software for data collection, analytics and practice management. Often, it’s chaos for the employees who are charged with integrating new acquisitions into the company. Combine that with the growing failure to conduct substantial technology due diligence and what we’re left with are investors putting their investments at needless risk.

After speaking extensively with Scott Klososky of TriCorps Technologies, there are six areas of technology that investors must examine before investing in an autism business. These principles are applicable to any business, actually, but they are particularly pertinent in our field because investors often overlook the IT side of the house and focus most of their diligence efforts on reimbursement, risk and compliance, the social impact of the business, and the scalability of the clinical model.

Compromised Systems

No investor wants to purchase a company whose data has already been stolen. Consequently, it is critical to investigate the security of a target company’s data before investing. Due diligence investigations of Yahoo’s data systems saved Verizon $350 million. After discovering all three billion Yahoo email accounts had been hacked, Verizon slashed its $4.48 billion offer to cover the cost of remediation. Absent due diligence, Verizon would have paid for the email accounts and then found itself liable for the problem. Conversely, Marriott purchased Starwood and discovered a massive data breach in the reservation system that resulted in the hacking of personal data, including passport numbers, for millions of customers. Marriott failed to conduct proper due diligence during the transaction and has since incurred many millions of dollars in expenses to remedy these issues.

IT Integration

When two enterprises merge, the major concern is the integration of two distinct organizations. Most merging entities recognize the challenge of combining physical, cultural and operational systems, but often neglect or miscalculate the complexity of the required integration of IT. In my experience, the reliance on synergies and applicability of existing systems is generally overestimated; as a consequence, the cost to merge IT systems is generally underestimated. Most organizations are struggling just to integrate and optimize their own systems and would be severely challenged to assimilate a new one or to migrate the entire company to the best option available.

IT Staff Considerations

Put yourself in the shoes of your employees. An imminent merger or acquisition threatens their continued employment. Destroying documentation; changing protocols, passwords, etc.; and installing obsolescence into IT systems are just three strategies to create a level of indispensability that would protect their job or cause damage to the business once they are let go.

It’s important to remember that the overwhelming majority of people would never consider such actions. But it only takes one bad actor to wreak havoc for a company. Those closest to and with the deepest knowledge of the technology, software, systems, and processes that keep the company running smoothly are the ones with the greatest potential to do major damage. There are numerous accounts of these events in mergers and acquisitions. Companies can protect themselves: there are defense mechanisms against this kind of behavior that are the purview of IT experts.

The Leakage of Intellectual Property

Bearing in mind the same caveats about human nature, employees have been known to steal information. Not just a priority when selling the business, protecting intellectual property must be a core due diligence practice at all times. In one of my own businesses, an employee downloaded critical business information and intellectual property and used it to establish their own company, now worth a significant amount of money. During acquisition discussions, determining who is most likely to feel their job is in jeopardy can lead to defensive measures that protect intellectual property prior to completion of the purchase as well as throughout the lifespan of the business.

Social Engineering Hacks

While these sorts of attacks are an ever-present threat to businesses, smart criminals know that companies are especially vulnerable at times of sales or acquisitions and can exploit the situation to steal money. In a growing wave of cyber theft, we are seeing increasing incidents of thieves hacking into company email and sending requests for payments that go directly to an offshore account. Staff, aware that a transaction is imminent, comply with the request and suddenly large sums of money are gone. A client of mine avoided this scam only because the accounting employee questioned the CEO in person about transferring funds by wire. This is the exception that proves the rule. Oftentimes, transactions like this, that get easily flagged in the normal course of business are processed without hesitation during a sale because atypical financial transactions are commonplace during these periods.

Email Trading

The final vulnerability to look for is relevant to publicly traded companies. Before a deal is ever announced, there will be rumors circulating about the sale. More dangerously, there will be ongoing chatter between business leaders that reveals sensitive information, most especially a possible sell date.

While rare, it’s not unheard of for opportunistic employees who know their way around the company’s systems to gain access to email communications and begin monitoring leadership’s emails throughout the ensuing weeks and months to parse them for valuable details that they then use to make personally advantageous stock trades with should-be confidential insider information. Many young IT professionals have been arrested for this kind of breach.

The positive thing to keep in mind here is that these attacks are avoidable. Managers that get caught in this trap are usually using an unsecured email server like Gmail, to which some employees have full admin access. Companies in the midst of a sale or acquisition cannot afford to be naive about access to information. An added emphasis on private communication and enhanced security provisions around sale preparations can easily remedy this kind of vulnerability.

Understanding these six elements of due diligence facilitates a process of digital risk mitigation that can save investors millions of dollars and secure the viability of entities, in our industry, that provide critical services to a population in serious need.

Follow me on Twitter or LinkedIn. Check out my website or some of my other work here.

disabilities

The Sexual Abuse Epidemic Among People with Intellectual Disabilities

In the era of #MeToo and increasing vigilance against sexual predation, there is burgeoning evidence that a significant cohort of people has been lost in the shadows.

Although the exact extent of the problem is unknown, numerous studies have concluded that individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and other physical, intellectual and developmental disabilities are at dramatically heightened risk for sexual abuse.

A study of 55,000 children in Nebraska found that those with intellectual disabilities were four times more likely to suffer sexual abuse than neurotypical children. Meaning that estimated one-in-three females overall suffer sexual abuse. That suggests a staggering, and largely undetected, level of abuse perpetrated against autistic and other children with disabilities.

Researchers at Willamette University in Oregon postulated that autistic children may be targeted by sexual offenders because of their vulnerability and their communication challenges. The researchers noted that sexually abused autistic children may react in ways that can be misattributed to their condition. For example, an autistic child acting out without apparent provocation (such as showing resistance to a particular caregiver) might be misunderstood as reacting to an environmental stimulus, rather than to untoward actions against them. Authorities are reluctant to pursue these cases in criminal court because witness testimony is the key to a successful prosecution.

According to US Department of Justice data, individuals with disabilities disproportionately suffer their abuse at the hands of people whom they know and trust compared to other victims of sexual abuse. Children on the spectrum are generally more reliant than neurotypical children are on adults, often requiring assistance with activities of daily living like bathing and dressing well into teenage years and adulthood. Because children are taught to respect and comply with the commands of adults, their vulnerability is accentuated.

Considering the magnified risk that autistic individuals face, more research is needed to identify strategies that can prevent sexual assault.

Many in the autism field recommend initiating a conversation about the issue as early as possible and being as direct as is tenable. They say parents should shape the discussion in the terms most conducive to understanding among family members. The impetus for this is the particularly critical role parents play in educating their autistic children about sex because they are less likely to learn about it from popular culture or peers.

It is all the more imperative that children with intellectual disabilities at higher risk of sexual abuse have the ability to distinguish between appropriate and inappropriate behavior directed towards them. Unfortunately, there is a paucity of educational programs targeting healthy sexuality for these populations of individuals.  

For individuals who are more severely impacted, who require higher levels of support, mere education and empowerment may be implausible or insufficient. For this population, often unable to distinguish appropriate from inappropriate touch, it is imperative that measures be enacted to reduce opportunities for abuse and vigilance remain constant to prevent it.

Relationships are central to life for autistic adults, as they are for everyone else, and for all the same reasons – love, companionship, support, sexual relations, and reproduction. Sexual predation destroys trust and undermines the ability to engage in healthy sexual and intimate relationships.

A two-part National Public Radio investigation found that sex education specially designed for individuals with intellectual disabilities can help them rebuild that trust and navigate the choppy waters of relationships, which are already maddeningly complex in the best of circumstances.

The alternative for individuals on the spectrum who have been abused may be a lifetime of isolation and loneliness. This prospect is as disheartening for these individuals as for anyone else.

All the research and journalistic investigations, such as those noted above, demonstrate that by improving the data describing sexual abuse of those with intellectual and developmental disabilities, strengthening their defenses against predation, implementing processes to prevent the opportunity for abuse to occur, and refining efforts to help those abused rebuild their confidence and trust, we can reduce incidents of assault and pave the way for healthier relationship building in this population.

Deeper reading on how we can improve these kinds of unfortunate conditions can be found in my book, Autism Matters: Empowering Investors, Providers, and the Autism Community to Advance Autism Services.

autism

Disappearing Into Normality: Understanding Autism on Its Own Terms

The popular paradigm to describe individuals on the autism spectrum is linear: we conceive of individuals as mildly, moderately, or severely impacted by autism. These categorizations are also used diagnostically to determine how a person’s life and functioning is affected by their autism. Put another way, autistic individuals are referred to as needing lower-support or higher-support, often depicting how others perceive their functioning and adaptability. 

We measure the place individuals occupy on the continuum primarily by their ability to communicate, socialize and act “normal.” Interestingly, we do not speak about other populations or groups of people this way. We recognize cultural differences, language differences, and expect that people from different parts of the world will behave differently. But when it comes to individuals with disabilities we differentiate on a spectrum of “normal”.

Of course, there is nothing inherently better about “normal.” It’s simply the norm—the way most of us have agreed to act. “Non-normal” socialization is not necessarily worse.

The Speciousness of Normal

So, which of these individuals with autism is more “normal” as we define it: the highly verbal, articulate person with a college degree who becomes incapacitated when overwhelmed by sensory inputs and struggles with anxiety and/or depression, or the person with communication challenges limited to simpler, possibly repetitive tasks who accomplishes them every day and enjoys a social life, explores their passions, and lives with a degree of independence? 

The first person appears “normal” to neurotypical people most of the time but encounters significant life challenges, many of which are not visible. This is why “normal,” as a qualifier, doesn’t carry much water.

The topic of normality and autism came up in my recent conversation with Dr. Sue Fletcher-Watson, a Chancellor’s Fellow at the University of Edinburgh’s Centre for Clinical Brain Sciences. She has conducted significant research on intelligence and socialization of individuals on the autism spectrum.

Dr. Fletcher-Watson believes that the great untapped reservoir of information about the struggles of autistic individuals comes from those struggling with the condition themselves. 

“I think we really need to systematically explore how [the recommendations of] able, articulate, autistic adults can be translated into good practice for young children, people with learning disabilities, people with communication challenges, and so on,” she said. 

“We’re looking at developing peer support models which would include matching newly- diagnosed autistic adults with people who have had a diagnosis for a while, and are very established in the community, but also maybe pairing parents of autistic children with an autistic adult, to get their insights and their perspective.”

Segregate or Integrate?

There is an ongoing discussion in the disability community and the legislature about the relative merits of organizing people with disabilities into their own communities. As research has demonstrated, and I have documented here, people with autism often report that they socialize more successfully with each other than with neurotypical people (and vice versa). Living within their own communities is often preferred and provides individuals with autism the freedom to organize their lives around their own social norms.

This would argue for creating communities of people with autism.

But many are suspect of creating living environments that could mimic institutions, weary of the way we institutionalized people with psychiatric conditions in the U.S. in the 1960s and 70s to disastrous effect. Today, federal law requires that many residential facilities for individuals with disabilities must be integrated with a certain number of non-disabled people.

Many caregivers and people with autism chafe at this law. 

It’s a conundrum, Dr. Fletcher-Watson and I agree. After all, people with commonalities of all types organize themselves into segregated communities, whether it’s senior living communities for older people or summer camps for children with cancer.

What marks these communities as special are the commonalities in life experiences the members share, and the social norms inside them, which could be beneficial to people with autism who are naturally governed by norms not shared by the rest of society.

Dr. Fletcher-Watson describes the conundrum this way: “On the one hand, what our data seems to be saying is that we should provide opportunities for autistic people to be together. I’ve met autistic adults who’ve never met another autistic person, and that’s heartbreaking. So, that’s really important, to provide those spaces. But the risk is that you can also create a ghetto.”

The solution might be to allow people on the spectrum to choose their own living arrangements, and if the results are organic, successful communities of people with autism, then we should be grateful for a concept that improves their lives. At the same time, individuals with autism who prefer to mainstream their living situations would have that ability, offering everyone the opportunity to choose the lifestyle that best suits them.

 

For further reading like this blog, check out a copy of my book, Autism Matters.

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