In recent years, we have witnessed autism rates climb up rapidly. According to WHO, one in 160 children in the world has autism spectrum disorder. Although this is an average, the reported figures are substantially higher compared to previous decades. In the United Kingdom, around 700,000 people are considered to be on the autism spectrum, an ASD rate of more than one person in 100 people.
Globally, the studies conducted worldwide showed that prevalence of ASD soared over the past 50 years. Many reasons contribute to this fact, including improved awareness, better understanding of the disorder medically, and improved reporting across ages.
Of course, this increase in prevalence comes at a cost to families with an individual with ASD as well as the governments across the globe. Preliminary results of new research estimated that in the United States, autism costs USD $126 billion a year and this number has more than tripled since 2006. Similarly in the United Kingdom, the annual cost reached £32 billion.
ASD is a lifelong condition that affects a person’s interactions, communication and behaviours, which makes costs per individual a lifelong expenditure. When families of the people with autism are included, around 2.8 million people are affected by these lifelong costs of autism. Providing lifelong care for every individual with autism who are intellectually challenged and not impacted by intellectual issues are estimated to cost USD $2.3 million and USD $1.4 million respectively in the United States. Moreover, the lifelong cost of supporting an individual with autism spectrum disorder was determined to be USD $2.4 in the United States and £1.5 million in the United Kingdom.
Autism spectrum disorder affects people from all backgrounds no matter the race, ethnicity, and socio-economic status. It requires that care and treatment be provided continuously throughout the individual’s life. In addition, the disorder often presents with coexisting disorders, be it mental, intellectual, or physiological ones.
What makes it more challenging to properly care for and treat this disorder is that since it is a spectrum disorder, the list of symptoms experienced by each individual is really diverse. Most of the individuals with autism usually have different sets of symptoms that vary in severity.
This lifelong disorder that requires almost round-the-clock care can add up. Numerous studies point to the fact that the most effective treatment for ASD is early intervention and intensive education. A Swedish study found that the cost of lifelong care for the disorder can be reduced by two-thirds if early diagnosis and intervention are introduced.
On this double-edged sword with lifelong costs on one side and the need for treatment throughout the individual’s life on the other, the best and most effective tool we have is awareness and proper intensive education. ASD can be diagnosed with today’s knowledge as early as when the child is 18 months old. This provides a great window of opportunity to start early and intensive education, which in turn will help the individual reach their potential early on.
Traditional and well-proven methods of early and intensive education provided by professionals are essential during these critical interventions. One of the most crucial pillars in providing the autistic individual the best opportunity and training in life is proper early intervention through scientifically proven methods like speech therapy and Applied Behavior Analysis. Unfortunately, not everyone has access to or can afford resources offering these essential bricks in the autistic individual’s development.
This grimm fact was more recently emphasized with a global pandemic that hindered many parents and caregivers from getting the professional help that they need. In-person services came to a halt with concerns to the safety of all. This led people to look for alternative services to provide their children with the education and intervention they need.
Another fact realized and embraced by the majority of people was that nowadays, there is little that cannot be done digitally. Although they don’t replace human to human contact entirely, digital solutions managed to be approved by experts in terms of filling a necessary and crucial gap caused by the lack of in-person services.
Special education resources that are easily accessible through mobile devices have become drastically more popular during the pandemic. Ed-tech industry mobilized its efforts to close the gap resulting from the lack of in-person services.
Although there is considerable effort by ed-tech companies offering solutions to better serve the special needs community, the visibility of them did not increase from the perspectives of investors and other innovators. Proper and accessible special education is a right. Any and all effort to push this forward should be backed up by the industry. Despite being one of the richest areas in the world, there aren’t a lot of investments made to special education and ASD related research and technology.
This past year has drawn immense attention to various issues in the society and the environment. But disabilities of various sorts like autism or learning disabilities were once again left under the cloak. Startups trying to make it in the market with their product did not really find financial support.
In 2019, venture capitalists funded around USD $1.7 billion into the edTech market. This was a big jump from 2015’s USD $788 million funding. In 2020, this rate increased to USD $9.8 billion for education technology investments. However, a vast majority of these investments were made to Series C companies, leaving startups and small companies out of the league. Looking at the activity closely, investments in innovative startups in their early stages have actually declined. When it comes to a ”niche” such as special needs apps, the situation doesn’t get better. It doesn’t add up, especially considering the fact that around 15% of the world population lives with a form of disability, according to the World Bank.
It truly isn’t realistic to expect traditional education methods designed around v children to be effective off hand for children with autism and other neurodevelopmental disorders. Parents and caregivers are painfully aware of the fact that the amount of special education and speech therapy provided by the state or covered by the insurance is simply not enough. And not many people can afford the best possible care, considering the cost. The system is faulty at the expense of those with special needs.
Today’s technology allows us to rethink how we are approaching or handling these ”niche” needs like special education and what is actually missing in the education sphere. We don’t have to reinvent the wheel here. Technological advancements allow us to provide comprehensive and effective tools that address a need that is the everyday-reality for a big portion of the world population.
If we are to address issues encountered in today’s education environment, we all need to look beyond just funding the current technologies in a race to scale up and up. Deficiencies experienced and struggles encountered by all during this pandemic must be a lesson in meeting these needs. EdTech has the capacity to make it happen for individuals with special needs. Investors and those with the power to make a change could really direct their attention to changes waiting to be made.