Meet Mark Jackson, the CEO of The Autism Therapy Group. We sat down with Mark to find out more about him and how he and his team are working to create one of the best places to work through setting a higher standard for care.
This is our conversation.
Q: Let’s start by talking a bit about your background, Mark. What were some of the key events and accomplishments that led you to your work with The Autism Therapy Group?
Mark: I received my undergrad in business at Indiana University before spending over 2 years in the Peace Corps where I was assigned to serve an underprivileged community in Bulgaria. One of the things they say about the Peace Corps is that it’s “the toughest job you’ll ever love”, and I found that to be absolutely true.
After that experience, I wanted to find a way to use my business degree while fulfilling my passion for helping people. Healthcare felt like the right place to land because it’s a business-oriented industry with ample opportunity to help people. So, prior to coming to The Autism Therapy Group, I spent about 15 years working in growing healthcare companies, including service providers and earned an MBA from the University of Chicago.
Ultimately, while the work I do today looks quite a bit different from the work I did in the Peace Corps 15 years ago, my career has come full circle. Just like then, today I wake up every morning and do as much as I can to really help people.
Q: What was it about The Autism Therapy Group that made you want to join the team?
Mark: I came on board in December of last year, 2018, after talking with the former CEO for over a year and a half, working with her to understand the business, and making sure that it was a good fit from every angle. It was a long courtship and at the end of the day, I really felt that it was where I needed to be.
ATG is part of a solution to a huge problem – access to quality care for children with autism. As a husband and father of three young children, my wife and I spend a lot of time thinking about what’s best for our family. I know how important it is to feel that we have the resources to offer our children everything they need to grow into happy, healthy adults. This, I believe, is true for nearly every parent. We just want to do right by our children.
When you’re the parent of a child with autism, this can be even more complicated, and so we’ve made client and family support our primary focus – ATG wants to offer parents of children with autism the best possible resources so that their child can thrive.
Q: What are the challenges that parents face when seeking care for a child with autism and how is The Autism Therapy Group addressing those challenges?
Mark: Unfortunately, parents seeking ABA Therapy for their child can end up on a super long waitlist with no guarantee that they’ll receive high-quality care. The best thing that parents of a child with autism can do is to get them into therapy early with a high-quality provider.
In fact, early intervention is proven to be a critical element for the success of ABA therapy, second only to quality. One of the most frustrating things that a parent can hear is that they must sit on a waitlist for a year.
So, our focus at ATG is to understand how we can bring high quality, thoughtful care to each of our clients in a way that allows us to reach some of the kids who need help now but are having trouble finding it.
We also want to provide the highest standard of care. A big step forward in that direction is our recent BHCOE preliminary accreditation. Pursuing this certification is a way for us to impose on ourselves a high standard of care that’s been nationally set by a third party. I was so happy to see that our entire team embraced the pursuit of this accreditation because it proved to me that they are all committed to working harder to deliver high-quality care.
Q: What about the therapist side of the industry? How are you creating an organization for which people want to work?
Mark: Working as an ABA therapist is a hard job, and unfortunately, it’s common for therapists to be overworked and burned out. This results in a high turnover rate within many organizations, and as a parent, you don’t want a new therapist every few months. Changing therapists on a regular basis is difficult and detrimental to the progress of the child.
To address this, we’ve drawn a hard line and determined to be respectful of our employees’ time, making sure that they have a sustainable work-life balance. This is the right thing to do for our people, but also the right thing to do for our parents because we can deliver a higher level of consistency. Also, by creating an organization that works hard to not overload our therapists, we are able to attract the best clinical talent.
One of the things that we talk about in meetings with our clinicians frequently is this: If at any time, you feel that you wouldn’t put a child you care about into our program, we need to immediately identify the problem and fix it.
This philosophy applies to the kind of workplace we are creating as well. I want our staff to love working here so much that they won’t hesitate to recommend us to a friend looking for a job in the field. I want our organization to be a place where people look forward to coming to work every day.
Creating that kind of organization requires a high level of authentic communication and transparency. I also think that it’s key to our being able to offer high-quality services.
Q: Would you share some more examples of what those standards look like on an operational level?
Mark: One of the biggest ways we’re different is in the level of training we provide to our therapists. We require that all our newly hired therapists attain their RBT certification within 90 days of their start date. ATG provides the training and resources for these new hires to achieve this nationally recognized certification at no cost to make sure each clinician has the right skills to consistently provide high-quality sessions.
We made the decision to institute this requirement because all of us felt that if we were the parent of a child with autism, we would absolutely want the therapist assigned to work with our child to have this certification. So, from that perspective, it was an easy decision.
We’ve also fine-tuned our hiring process to identify applicants who have a deep passion for this work. This is so that we can provide better care for the children we work with, but also as a way of building a team of people who will stay with us for the long term. We really want to create a culture in which our BCBA’s and therapists want to stay with ATG for a very long time.
Q: I know from past interviews with your Clinical Director and one of your Regional Directors, that the therapists at The Autism Therapy Group really feel that they can act in the best interest of the child at all times. As an organization, what are you doing to promote that kind of culture?
Mark: One of the first things we did when I came on board was promote Brooke Belling to Clinical Director because we wanted her to be in a position where she could have a voice for our clinicians and for our clients.
I trust her judgment, her ability to understand difficult situations and be able to make a decision to support our therapists in doing something that’s outside the playbook or adaptive to a unique set of circumstances. We don’t want to be a sterile, 100% process driven organization that can’t adapt to situations that are outside the norm.
She’s created a system so that every staff member has a mentor. Mentorship is focused on maintaining the highest standard of care in all situations and supporting our clinicians chosen career path. It has nothing to do with marketing or the organization’s bottom line. It’s all about supporting the passion of the therapist to do their best work. This Director’s role also means that every decision the leadership team makes has a clinical fingerprint on it.
Our therapists generally know, in every situation, what the right thing to do is. Our job as an organization is to empower them to do it.
We also go to great lengths to ensure that our therapists feel heard. It’s empowering to voice an idea and then see it implemented across the organization. Our leadership team wants our therapists to know that we not only want feedback and ideas, we crave it.
Q: What does it mean that The Autism Therapy Group takes “a concierge approach”?
Mark: It simply means that we don’t believe in a one-size-fits-all solution. From the moment we first talk to a parent, through the full course of therapy, and into discharge planning, we are focused on taking a thoughtful, personalized approach to each child.
We’re willing to look at cases that fall outside the “norm” because we’re ok with out-of-the-box thinking. These kids need help, but they don’t live in a vacuum. We do what we can to understand the reality of their circumstances and create a solution to serve their specific situation. We are also prepared to say that we are not the right mode of therapy for a child if we believe that they need something different. In those cases, we’ll spend a significant amount of time helping the family to get that child in the right hands.
I have such a passion to see The Autism Therapy Group succeed. This means maintaining a deep commitment to always doing the right thing, growing responsibly, and creating a great place for people to work.