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Families Touched by Autism Turn to FAs With Special Needs Expertise

By Thomas Coyle April 12, 2018

Financial advisors who routinely help clients with autistic family members get to that specialization by different routes. But they agree on one thing: the care they’re forced to take in a realm fraught with practical and emotional difficulties is applicable to all clients — if not so obviously now, then at some point down the road. The intimation is that all advisors need to know how to deal with clients with special needs.

Given the time spans and intergenerational dynamics involved, “special needs planning applies to pretty much 100%” of client relationships, says Helen Sims, an advisor with Merrill Lynch’s Pittsburgh-based Duckworth Haggerty Group, a nationally focused team with $1.2 billion under management that specializes in families affected by autism.

Whether it springs from newly-diagnosed autism in a small child or signs of dementia in an older adult, Sims sees the need for acute holistic planning and management “coming up more and more” for the clients she and her colleagues advise.

April happens to be National Autism Awareness Month in the U.S., providing an impetus to interview and share the insights of FAs who advise families impacted by a condition that — according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — may afflict as many as one in 68 Americans. It’s also a good chance to grapple with what autism (properly called “autism spectrum disorder”) is and isn’t.

Autism is a neuro-developmental condition that affects how a sufferer communicates and interacts with others. Crucially, people with autism don’t readily pick up on social “tells” — commonly understood signs of things like approval, impatience, attentiveness, etc. — making it hard for them to interact with others. It can also show up in “restricted interests and repetitive behaviors” and other “symptoms that hurt the person’s ability to function properly in school, work, and other areas of life,” according to the American Psychiatric Association.

Beyond the basic definition, however, autism gets harder to pin down. It’s a “spectrum” disorder because its type and severity varies from individual to individual. The range goes from high-functioning sufferers who may be extremely talented and quite self-aware to those with compromised motor skills and limited mental capacity who need constant support and care. And there’s a wide, populous and varied expanse between those extremes.

This reality calls for “very nuanced planning,” says Sims, whose professional interest in special-needs financial planning took shape when, as a college student, she had to jump in to iron out her family’s finances after her father took suddenly ill.

“It’s a lonely place, having a special needs kid.”
Jeffrey Gerson
Morgan Stanley

“It’s not just about investments, it’s about care coordination, and navigating wealth management as well as insurance, estate planning and all the planning around potential benefits” from government sources that may be lost if certain assets aren’t properly sheltered, Sims explains.

Charles Massimo knows all about this. The head of CJM Wealth Management, an independent RIA in Deer Park, N.Y. with $400 million under management, has two autistic sons – teenagers now – who he says will never be able to live independently.

“Raising a child with autism is a 24/7 job,” says Massimo. The work he and his teammates do at CJM aims to lighten that burden for clients in that category — not just through planning and wealth management, but also through coaching and networking.

Families with autistic children “need a strong support system, whether it’s family or not.” That’s for everything from securing someone like him as “their advocate on the financial side” to having access to friends, relatives or caregivers who can help them “just take a break” now and then, says Massimo.

For this reason, Massimo works to build ties between families with autistic members by sponsoring a range of events from galas to small dinner parties.

Jeffrey Gerson understands the need for this kind of support. “It’s a lonely place, having a special needs kid,” says the veteran Morgan Stanley advisor.

New York-based Gerson first learned about autism with the diagnosis of a nephew about 20 years ago — an event followed soon afterward by the birth of his autistic daughter.

Like Sims and Massimo, Gerson says families coping with autism need teams — and he warns that these webs can, out of necessity, get quite elaborate. Typically, and besides an FA, they include an accountant, often several types of specialist attorneys, qualified caregivers and occupational therapists and an array of medical practitioners — not all with skills that come immediately to mind.

“People with autism can suffer from anxiety from the frustration they feel about not being able to communicate,” says Gerson. “This can lead to intestinal problems that can be like Crohn’s disease in severity.”

Further, immediate and extended families must be coached on ways to maintain financial, emotional and other ongoing support for the autistic person after parents or main family caregivers die.

The scope of team-member coordination and planning – and the need for well-oiled intergenerational legacies – makes the financial-planning needs of a family with an autistic member akin to those of two other wealth management constituencies, says Gerson.

Like Sims, Gerson sees broad similarities in the needs of families wracked by senility. But more strikingly, he sees parallels with the needs of families of extraordinary wealth – even if it’s nowhere as lucrative.

Helen Sims

“That’s not why I do it,” says Gerson of his commitment to helping families with special needs members. “I’m very likely to give a lot of time and advice to people with special needs whether or not they have assets to invest.”

And Gerson says the extra work is worthwhile. “I go home and I feel like I made a difference,” he tells FA-IQ.

“They say a lot of what we do as advisors is commoditized — it isn’t, but that’s what they say,” Gerson remarks. “Well, you certainly can’t commoditize special needs consulting.”