Private equity and venture capital firms TPG Biotech, Shore Capital Partners, Bay City Capital, Great Point Partners and Google Ventures, plus hedge fund Scopia Capital Management are among the investors slated to attend the 2014 Autism Investment Conference next week in San Francisco.
The event is organized by Autism Speaks in partnership with Google, which is offering a separate workshop for entrepreneurs doing autism-related work.
"While autism has always been part of our population, as our economy has shifted from agrarian work, where everyone could contribute, to urban, social workplaces, this group has moved backward due their social disability. As an investor, I see the opportunity to capitalize on the talents and availability of this group of workers," said Brian Jacobs, co-founder of venture capital firm Emergence Capital Partners.
One area where autistic individuals excel, Jacobs says, is software testing. He expects to back start-ups in the sector as an angel investor. Jacobs' initial interest comes from his son, who has Asperger's syndrome, a type of autism that allows relatively high function.
Examples include Great Point's investment in Pacific Child & Family Associates, a provider of behavior analysis services to children with autism and other related disorders; Trimaran Capital Partners' investment in Educational Services of America, which offers day school services for children with special needs; and Coppermine Capital's bet on City Pro Group, a health-care services business coordinating care to young children with developmental delays and autism in the New York area.It is great that businesses are talking about employing people with autism. It's also great that they see profit in the move. Self-interest is much more reliable than benevolence. Still, some words of caution are in order.
Beware the Rain Man Myth. Businesses should not equate ASD employment with detail jobs such as software testing. Some people on the spectrum do indeed have an terrific eye for detail, but others do not. Conversely, many ASD people have stereotype-defying talents in art, writing, and other fields.
If businesses are searching narrowly for a Raymond Babbitt, they might miss out on a Temple Grandin or John Elder Robison.