March 4, 2019
Business Leaders of the Year

Robinson seized on the need for better autism services

Photo | Brad Kane
Jeff Robinson

2019 Honorees

For someone who's had such an impact on special education services and behavioral analysis, it can be hard to believe Jeff Robinson never initially saw himself in the industry.

Robinson comes from a family of lawyers and planned to go to law school. While waitlisted, he began working at a school for autism. He saw up close the benefit special education services can have on children.

For someone who always loved working with children at summer camps growing up, Robinson quickly found a new calling.

"It just made sense to me, and I decided that was going to be my career path," Robinson said.

Roughly four decades later, Robinson is quickly approaching the end of that career. He plans to retire in August, 16 years after he started Behavioral Concepts Inc., a Worcester service provider and consultant to school districts.

Growing need, growing company

BCI has grown to include offices in Fitchburg and Springfield, and plans are in place for new offices on the North Shore and South Shore. In 2014, BCI opened the Center for Applied Behavioral Instruction in Worcester, its own private school for students whose needs require extra care and services. The company started with just six employees and now has nearly 500.

Robinson's decision to go into special education services came before he could have known just how much autism care needs would spike in the coming decades. Today, the advocacy group Autism Speaks says one out of 59 children is diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder. When Robinson was in graduate school in the 1980s, the rate was more like 1 in 10,000, he said.

Awareness of autism, and more widespread screening, has brought a need for more providers like BCI, which works as a consultant for area school districts. Schools sometimes send students with particularly specialized needs to out-of-district schools like the Center for Applied Behavioral Instruction, whose enrollment has doubled in each of the past two years to 60 students.

"We saw that there was just an incredible need as the incidents of autism increased," Robinson said.

One of the school districts BCI works with is Leominster. Ned Pratt, Leominster schools' director of pupil personnel and special education, has worked with Robinson and BCI while he was with Worcester and Marlborough schools.

"I didn't hire him to tell me, 'Yes, this is wonderful,'" Pratt said. "I hired him to tell us, 'This is what you need to do.'"

Pratt said he's grown to consider Robinson not just a trusted advisor for special education but also a friend.

"He's someone who I trust, and that's the biggest piece," Pratt said. "He's someone who lives the idea that in order to make a difference with a student, you have to commit to caring for them very deeply, and Jeff does."

Hitting the right notes

Robinson worked at a series of organizations as a special education consultant focusing on autism before founding BCI in 2003. The timing was fortuitous with not only growing needs for autism and other special education services but also a change in insurance coverage. Private insurance, not school districts, now covers those services, he said.

"You catch a little luck, and we were fortunate that the timing was really good," Robinson said.

Rising demand means BCI needs to work harder to recruit workers.

The company has paired with Bay Path University to develop an on-site graduate program for BCI's behavioral analysts, with BCI pitching in 60 percent of tuition costs.

Robinson has already sold his share of BCI in anticipation of his retirement and has taken the opportunity lately to reflect on the unexpected path his career took. He has found it rewarding to work with children who, in many cases, flourish and graduate from high school and college, and to oversee a staff that, like him, was hit by the behavioral analytic bug.

"For someone who thought he was going to law school, it's been an amazing career," Robinson said. "I can't imagine doing anything else that I could love so much."

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story incorrectly said Jeff Robinson worked as a board certified behavioral analyst. He was a special education consultant before founding BCI.

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