Op-Ed submitted by SVC member Sunil Desai 

April is Autism Awareness Month. Autism refers to a complex set neurobehavioral conditions characterized by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech and nonverbal communication.  While accurate, this description misses important details.

First, no two individuals with autism present identically. In fact, autistic individuals have such a wide range of attributes—and of varying degrees—that autism exists on a very broad and multidimensional spectrum. Many individuals with autism are “high-functioning” (previously called Asperger’s Syndrome) and some can even be considered just quirky individuals. Others have severe impairments that require dedicated individual and continuous support to ensure their happiness, safety and achievement of full potential.

Secondly, autism often comes with attributes that can be highly beneficial, both to the individual and to society. One example that covers both extremes is beautifully told by Elizabeth Bonker and Ginnie Breen in I Am In Here, which details the particularly challenging situation while featuring the amazing and insightful poetry of a non-verbal autistic child.

As awareness has grown in recent years, so too has the rate of diagnosis.  As of 2018, the CDC estimates that autism affects 1 in 59 children—up from 1 in 166 as of 2004.  Thanks in great part to the passage of many laws including the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 2004, public school districts have increased the quantity and quality of autism support in public schools to meet the increasing requirement.  Many private schools have done so as well and there are now many schools and even colleges that specialize in meeting the academic, social, and other support needs of autistic students.

However, an estimated 50,000 individuals with autism age out of school-based services every year.  While some autistic children who receive proper treatment and support early enough may readily transition into independent lives as adults, most—80% according to the International Society of Autism Research—require on-going support into adulthood. Fortunately more companies, large and small, are specifically hiring autistic individuals to leverage their particular skills and traits such as: truthfulness, ability to focus, attention to detail, acceptance of others differences, conscientiousness, passion, memory and directness, while also establishing measures to ensure their unique personal needs are met no less than their non-autistic colleagues.  Some of these programs have been highlighted in national news.

A number of SVC members have been on the lookout for opportunities to invest in companies that either provide services for autistic individuals or employs them. One company that has already received investment from SVC members is Ultra Testing, which provides IT quality assurance services to other companies. The majority—75%—of Ultra Testing employees are “on the spectrum”. Ultra testing has outperformed traditional providers of such services and has also outperformed all other American employers in job loneliness evaluations (14% for Ultra employees vs 40% for all employees according to one survey). These kinds of improvements in quality of life are exactly what autistic people need and their skills are often exactly what companies need to be most successful in what they do.

There are other non-profit organizations looking to help grow the number of employment opportunities for individuals with autism such as SpecialisterneUSA. The Angel Capital Association, of which SVC is a member organization, has two autism affinity groups that connect in Podio to share information about autism generally, as well as opportunities to invest in companies that support individuals with autism.  If you are interested in joining the Podio group, please contact SVC Team member Emily at: [email protected]

The author, Sunil Desai (Center) with SVC Team Members Jill Newbold (Left) and Emily Winslow (Right) at the Angel Capital Association Summit

Investments in companies either providing services or job opportunities for autistic individuals certainly qualify as social impact investments prima facie. However, investors should be keen to identify companies that are not just looking to profit from the increasing demand for services and jobs.  Optimal life outcomes for autistic people should be the primary goal. To that end investments should help identify and scale best practices for effectiveness in individual outcomes, not efficiency and profit.

Additional resources about autism can be found at: www.autismspeaks.org and www.autism-society.org.

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