The following blog post was written by Paul Nyhan, a staff writer with the Microsoft Accessibility Blog. Paul is a 20-year journalism veteran who has written extensively about disability issues.
Fourteen years ago, Jon Rosenberg was struggling to raise his son. Diagnosed with severe autism, seven-year-old Brian screamed, cried for hours, bit himself and couldn’t tell his parents when he was tired or hungry.
Looking for support, the Microsoft program manager was talking with other parents at the company with children on the autism spectrum. They were all trying a relatively new treatment, Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), and it was the only thing that seemed to help their kids. Some children stopped hurting themselves, and a few who never uttered a word began to speak. Even the most severely impacted children made progress.
As incredible as the therapy could be, it was also extremely expensive, as much as $60,000 a year, which usually came out of a parent’s pocket because it was not typically covered under health insurance plans. So, Rosenberg and seven other parents joined forces and asked Microsoft to cover ABA treatments under its health and wellness benefits.
After more than a year of review Microsoft agreed, becoming one of the first companies in the country to cover ABA therapy and helping to set an example for others about how to include the still-emerging treatment in a corporate benefits package.
Today, a growing number of companies are covering the treatment, and more states are requiring coverage.
“I think this was a great lighthouse example for the industry,” Rosenberg said.
Microsoft’s emergence as a leader in autism coverage was a carefully researched move.
After hearing from the group of parents, known affectionately as the Gang of Eight around the company, Microsoft worked with the University of Washington Autism Center on the possibility of an ABA benefit. Together, the company and university developed a benefit that relied on the center’s years of experience treating children with ABA.
“The fact that we had the University of Washington Autism Center on our doorstep really allowed us to work with a partner with deep expertise, which enabled us to develop an innovative, effective and viable benefit program in an area where few others had gone before,” said Julie Sheehy, Microsoft’s Director of Health & Wellness.
Over the years, Microsoft’s ABA benefit has changed, as more was learned about both the therapy and autism in general. The company will continue to listen to its employees as it strives to improve it and all of its benefits.
Microsoft’s decision’s to cover Applied Behavior Analysis was not simply an act of corporate responsibility by company known for providing industry-leading benefits. Employees would be more productive.
When a child has autism, it can consume a family. Sleepless nights, for parents and their child, outbursts, regular visits to the emergency room and the sometimes overwhelming stress of coping with a disorder without a known cause or clear cure can take an enormous toll on an employee.
“Microsoft recognized how completely this sort of condition at home could consume its employees,” Jon Rosenberg said.
Today, Rosenberg’s family life is far calmer, thanks in no small measure to the fact that they could continue Applied Behavior Analysis because of the Microsoft benefit. With the therapy, Brian Rosenberg learned critical life skills, and as importantly how to advocate for himself.
Autism can rob a person of basic authority over life. But today Brian can get a drink of water or a book he wants to read, seemingly small steps that exemplify how ABA has given him far greater control over his own life.
“None of this would have been possible without giving him some of the basic tools” through ABA therapy, Rosenberg added. “It has just totally, totally, transformed our life as a family.”
(Stephanie Rowland contributed to this story.)