Rethink autism


Feb 19, 2010

One out of every 110 babies born in the United States today will be diagnosed with autism, according to the CDC, and the diagnosed incidences of autism over time have been increasing.

One of the evidenced-based interventions for autism is called Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), but there are few people certified in ABA so many families and school districts with autistic children do not have convenient access to a trained professional. In addition, when a professional is nearby, the service is costly—in the range of $100 an hour—so even more cannot access this service.

When we see a service that is too expensive, inconvenient, and centralized such that a large population cannot consume it, it’s an indication that it is a prime area awaiting a disruptive innovation.

Rethink Autism is attempting to pioneer such a disruptive solution—and it bears many of the classic traits of one. Profiling it helps to clarify the pattern that characterizes disruption.

In brief, the way Rethink Autism works is that a parent or adult fills out a skills checklist online, and Rethink Autism creates an individualized ABA-based plan for the child. That plan in essence guides the parent or teacher in what to do with the child and how to do it through the use of videos of experts demonstrating the interventions and so forth that break down complex tasks into short, easy-to-understand steps. As the child learns new skills, the platform adds new lessons to his or her curriculum and continues to customize over time. Much of the interventions are, of course, offline, but the platform is delivered in a child-centered way online. No expert is involved.

In essence, Rethink Autism does several things to allow nonconsumers the benefit of an ABA intervention. First, it commoditizes the expertise of trained ABA professionals and allows less-skilled people—parents and teachers and the like who are not trained ABA experts—to do ABA interventions. Sure, they aren’t as good as the experts, and the platform probably isn’t as good at customizing a curriculum for a child as an expert guided by rich intuition, but for the many autistic children who do not have access to those experts, this is far better than the alternative, which is nothing at all. And like all technologies, it will improve over time as it scales, just like transistors and personal computers did. As a result of commoditizing the professionals’ expertise, it’s also a lot more affordable than the traditional service. Instead of $100 an hour, it costs less than $100 a month—a price many more families and school districts can afford. Now that’s disruptive!

Although it is certainly not the flashiest technology out there, how it’s used and the business model in which it is planted is far more important in determining if it’s disruptive, and this meets the tests. That isn’t to say Rethink Autism is guaranteed of being successful. It is off to a good start, however.

– Michael B. Horn

Michael is a co-founder and distinguished fellow at the Clayton Christensen Institute. He currently works as a principal consultant for Entangled Solutions.