Finding Funding for Speech Therapy: A Game Theory Perspective

Temple Grandin, a well-known autism activist, once said, in regard to teaching children with autism, “The worst thing you can do is nothing.” Autism can affect people in a multitude of ways, but individuals on the spectrum often share certain traits. The most common struggle that they face is experiencing difficulty in interacting with others and engaging in social situations effectively. 

1 in 68 children has autism, but not all can afford therapy. Both individual speech therapy and group sessions can play an instrumental role in helping young autistic children learn how to better engage with the world around them. Therapy is most effective when started early in a child’s life and can continue for many years to come. Unfortunately, therapy can quickly become very expensive, and families are often forced to go without it for financial reasons. 

In Palo Alto, where I live, public schools have special education classrooms and programs that fulfill many of these needs. However, ideally, this should still be supplemented with individual therapy at a clinic. Furthermore, in summer, when school is not in session, children need individual and group therapy at a clinic so that there is not a break in their progress. I volunteer at one of these types of clinics, and I found out that many families have to quit therapy for their children (or don’t even begin it) because of a lack of insurance coverage.

When volunteering, one of the stories I heard from a family made me realize the true importance of this issue. One child, Jeff (name changed) had been attending the clinic for about two years and had made marked improvement. However, his mother lost her job and therapy was soon not financially possible for them. Jeff’s family was scared about leaving the clinic, in which they had found not only a valuable education for Jeff, but also a supporting and loving community. The bonds that Jeff had forged with the therapists and other clients naturally took time for him, and it was heartbreaking to watch him have to leave.

As such, here is my call to action: investigate whether or not your local community supports children with speech-language disorders. Are there community centers and free programs for both the children and their families? Are school curriculums sufficiently supporting special education students? Going beyond, if you have time, consider volunteering at a clinic. The children will appreciate your kindness and time!

These are some of the things that you can do personally. However, my project focuses on what other parties can do to fund speech therapy for underprivileged autistic children. I believe that both clinics and insurance companies can aid in the effort to provide free/discounted therapy. Clinics can provide scholarships, while insurance companies can adjust their plans to provide more supportive care for their clients. If we are trying to determine whether clinics or companies would be better for this effort, we can consider our deliberation as a game. The two players are the clinics and the companies. As such, the values and payoffs of the game are determined by the benefit received by the clinics and companies (as opposed to the children).  The players’ motivation for participating is having their public perception and approval improve. Basically, if one helps and the other doesn’t, the result is better for the one who helped. However, if they both help, the public will not notice either action due to the similarity, and they will lose money without a gain in public approval, creating a negative impact. If they both don’t help, they will both seem to lack empathy and will also creative a negative impact. The latter is more negative than the former. Furthermore, clinics providing help always helps their public image more than insurance companies that help, as clinics have a wider reach; since not everyone has insurance, insurance fails to reach very low-income families, so adjusting an insurance plan to help would not be as approved by the public.

In an ideal world, both players would provide help. However, if players see that helping will not be particularly beneficial to themselves, they will not do it. As such, we are trying to determine which player will be most motivated to help. By doing this, we could target that player for spreading awareness about the cause. Here is a matrix that represents the benefit (in public approval) that both players would receive by either helping or not helping. The rows are clinics and the columns are insurance companies.

Insure Don’t Insure
Provide Scholarship (-1,-2) (2, 0)
No Scholarship (0,1) (-3,-3)

From this matrix, it is clear that clinics will receive the most benefit if they provide scholarships when companies don’t adjust their insurance plans. Clinics will have the most motivation to help because their overall benefit is the greatest.

Therefore, we should make an effort to reach out to our local clinics and suggest setting up scholarship programs. Perhaps the community can band together to help supplement the fund. Take this survey here to state whether or not you would support such a cause: 

As a final reminder of the incredible effects of therapy, watch this video of how uplifting some simple activities in a special education classroom can be!

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