Why Education CEOs Need to Care About Autism

With April marking Autism Awareness Month, a new Centers for Disease Control study shows that the prevalence of autism continues to increase significantly, from less than 100,000 children in 2002 to a projected million-plus children by 2014. The CDC first released a study in 2007 (using numbers from 2002), which estimated that less than 100,000 children (or 1 in every 150 children) had autism. The CDC’s 2009 study, using 2006 numbers, showed an increase of 36% from 2002 rates (to 1 in every 110 children). The most recent study, released this month, uses 2008 figures showing an increase of 23% from 2006 (and 78% from 2002), estimating that 1 in 88 children (and 1 in 54 boys) have an autism spectrum disorder. While there is no agreement on why the underlying rate of autism continues to grow, part of the increase can be attributed to better understanding and recognition of autism. More importantly, there is agreement that autism is treatable, and that early, aggressive intervention gives children a strong chance of functioning in a more typical manner.

So what does this all mean? The new numbers show that we are on track between now and 2014 to have more than 1 million children with autism in the school system – a big challenge, yes, but also a big opportunity. School districts are spending, on average, $25,000 per student with autism, which points to a $25 billion market. The market is growing at an exponential rate and is poised to be ten times as large in 2014 as it was in 2004. As education companies know, in this era of budget-tightening, that type of growth rate simply does not exist anywhere else in education. Schools that had perhaps one or two students with autism 10 years ago now have 10 or 12 kids. More and more teachers have a child with autism in their classroom, and with the decrease in teacher’s aides, must find ways to meet those children’s special needs, in addition to the rest of their students.

In other words, the growth in the autism market necessitates new planning and products for education companies. The opportunity to serve special needs is particularly strong in the app market, with its ease of distribution and the ability to take a mainstream product and adapt to one-on-one or special needs learning. However, companies also need to re-evaluate marketing strategies. It is not enough to go to the district reading curriculum coordinator with a special needs reading product. Instead, you will need to work with both the special education coordinator and the reading coordinator. You also should keep in mind the funding sources for special education curriculum can be different, which also can have some advantages, as funding for special education is mandated and not as prone to budget shifts as other, more discretionary programs. Finally, if your company is exploring opportunities in the autism marketplace, Arc’s Kevin Custer – a member of the national board of directors for the Autism Society of America and the recently named president of the board of the Autism Society of Colorado – can offer insight and direction in adapting to this changing market.