It’s hard enough for working parents to balance the ever-increasing demands of home and work life, but for parents of children living with autism, it’s an entirely different struggle. Over the last two decades the prevalence of autism spectrum disorder diagnoses in the United States has increased by more than 600 percent, from one in 500 children in 1995 to one in 68 children today.

Parents of children on the autism spectrum are often forced to make tough choices between working and caring for their child at home. Studies show that juggling care for a child with autism can impact an employee’s productivity and lead to lost time at work. 

I spend much of my day helping employers to engage valuable employees who happen to be parents of a child with special needs. In order to retain these workers, it is critical that employers are aware of the challenges these parents are facing and develop solutions that help address their needs.  Throughout my career working with employers on meaningful employee benefits programs, I’ve observed the following challenges of working parents of children with autism or other developmental disabilities. Helping employers understand these challenges is an essential first step to supporting these parents.

Also see: Navigating special needs education

Anxiety and Depression: Parents of children with autism tend to have higher rates of anxiety and depression. According to recent research from the National Business Group on Health, 46 percent of caregivers of children with special needs need more help managing their emotional and physical stress, and 40 percent of parents need help balancing work and family responsibilities.  

There are multiple factors that play into the added stress of parents of children with autism. Many parents feel a lack of hope and empowerment due to the fact that there is no cure for autism, and often times it is difficult to ascertain their child’s potential. Parents often feel lost and overwhelmed. Frequent questions arise such as: “Will my child make friends?”, “Will he or she be able go to college,” “What are my treatment options and which will be the most effective?”

High Treatment Costs: Treatment for children with autism continues to increase and can now average over $60,000 per year per child, bringing the total estimated economic cost to the United States up to $137 billion per year. While many insurance plans will cover some therapies such as speech or occupational, most self-insured employer plans do not cover Applied Behavior Analysis —which is recommended by entities such as the American Academy of Pediatrics and the US Surgeon General.

While today as many as 39 states have required state-regulated health insurance plans to provide therapy for autism, but again, the coverage varies and often doesn’t include the most proven method of treatment. The good news is, a number of large employers like American Express, Microsoft, Home Depot, and Capital One Financial are beginning to lead the way by extending their plans to include coverage for ABA therapy.

Absenteeism and Work Limitations: The NBGH found that parents of children with a disability lose around five hours of work weekly, totaling approximately 250 hours per year, which translates to an average of $3,000–5,000 per person in lost productivity for businesses.  Children with autism can require an average of 25+ hours of behavioral therapy per week. Between the rigorous demands of regular therapy, additional medical appointments, and navigating daily care, parents are often forced to choose between work and child-related responsibilities. According to a study from Washington State University, nearly 60% of families with children with autism suffered financial problems within the past year due to the fact that one of the parents had taken a leave of absence, and nearly as many had not taken a promotion in order to care for their child.

Also see: Top 10 companies for working parents

Severe Shortage of Mental Health Services: There are approximately 6,000 Board Certified Behavioral Analysts worldwide, with only a few thousand in the U.S. available to treat over 1 million American individuals in from birth-21 diagnosed with autism. There are simply not enough professionals to meet the demand. In addition, waitlists can extend out to months or years for parents attempting to get their child clinical best practice treatment.  Finding, retaining and contracting care daily is often a time-consuming and stressful challenge.

So what can be done to support employees with children on the autism spectrum?

First, employers can adopt insurance plans that provide better coverage for effective therapy treatments so that parents can worry less about the financial stress and focus more on the tasks at hand at home and in the workplace. Employers can also champion work-life balance and employee wellness strategies that help parents manage their stress at home and in the workplace.

Second, new tools are emerging that can support parents at home—offering them tips and training to help their child develop the skills and behaviors that will allow them to succeed at home and at school. For example, Rethink Autism has developed an online suite of clinical best practice treatment tools and resources. From anywhere, parents can access step-by-step videos, peer support, customized learning plans, and live clinical coaching. Such resources help parents provide the intensive therapy and early intervention that are critical to helping a child reach his or her fullest potential. 

In office buildings around the country, there is much work to be done in promoting greater understanding towards employees who have children with autism or other developmental disabilities. With increased awareness and new technology, there are cost-effective ways for employers to help such employees remain focused and productive.  There is much hope to be shared, and employers can play a pivotal role in ensuring that parents are receiving meaningful support.

Mike Civello, vice president of Employee Benefits at Rethink Autism (www.rethinkbenefits.com), has 15 years of experience helping employers shape meaningful employee benefits programs to empower, engage, and support employees. 

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