One criticism the autism sector frequently faces is in regards to a lack of cultural diversity, and specifically, whether the industry is doing enough to meet the needs of children from traditionally underrepresented communities, as well as the providers serving them.
Panelists shared those concerns during a recent discussion at the Autism Investor Summit, a three-day event held online that brought together various industry leaders, investors, providers, advocates, legislators, payers, patients and researchers. The event, which was in its third year, was put on by Los Angeles-area autism care professionals Sara Litvak and Ronit Molko.
For Black autism professionals like Brandon Whitfield, lack of diversity is a major issue in the field of applied behavior analysis (ABA) therapy, which is considered the gold standard of autism care.
As the clinical director of Autism Spectrum Therapies, a Burbank, California-based ABA therapy provider, Whitfield — who was a panelist on the discussion — says he is proud that the makeup of his workforce mirrors that of his homebase in the greater Los Angeles area.
“When I look at the demographics … we have 52% [of our workforce] … that identify as Latinx, we have another 17% that identify as Asian American/Pacific Islander, 17% are black and 13% are white,” Whitfield said during the panel. “I love this group, because it really reflects the demographics of my area.”
Nonetheless, he pointed out that organizations like his tend to be outliers when it comes to diversity. According to Behavior Analyst Certification Board (BACB) data posted in December 2020, more than 56% of all ABA workers are white, while more than 85% are female.
“We should be striving to match the demographics of our country,” Whitfield said. “Most other health care practitioners have done the same, but for some reason, we’re just missing the mark.”
Traditionally, it has been hard to discern the number of ABA professionals of color nationwide, given that many industry organizations do not publicly share their workforce data. And the BACB itself only recently started doing so.
That dearth of data comes as various studies have shown that Black and Hispanic children tend to be diagnosed with autism later than their white counterparts and are less likely to receive attentive care resources and services.
Whitfield believes a more diverse BCBA workforce could help address those inequalities.
“As behavior analysts, we have to take a stand and really see the value of increasing diversity within our field,” he said.
Justin Funches, another panelist leading the discussion alongside Whitfield, talked about the impact workforce diversity can have on ABA providers’ bottom lines.
Funches is president of LEARN Behavioral, a Baltimore-based organization that operates ABA therapy programs for children across 15 states.
From a business perspective, Funches said the industry could be shortchanging itself by not prioritizing the diversity of clinicians, who could in turn render more culturally competent services to children of color.
“When you think about building an organization in ABA, … three really important things .. are key to the returns investors get,” he said during the discussion. “You want to see client growth, you need really great talent and you need really great leadership. … One of the things that … is really powerful about diversity is it can help across all three of these dimensions. … [It] is a really great way to build your client base and to grow the top line.”
Funches said he supports tuition assistance for would-be BCBA professionals and feels the industry could do better at recruiting more people of color into the field by looking at new, diverse talent pools.
“How do we introduce the field of behavior analysis to people who don’t know anything about it, whether that’s historically black colleges or going into communities that don’t speak English?” he commented.
Funches added that addressing such issues could help attract more funding into the space for providers looking to expand services.
Meanwhile, Whitfield believes gathering BCAB demographic data is a step in the right direction toward improving diversity and benefiting the industry and the children it serves. Like Funches, he hopes providers will take a more active role in recruiting a diverse workforce.
“The community outreach component is huge to really address this issue,” he said. “Not necessarily just reaching out to families in spreading the good news of ABA, but also going to … high schools, … universities, community colleges, … and really promoting ABA [career opportunities].”