As a newly independent financial planner, Andrew Komarow was focused on choosing a client niche, when suddenly the perfect one became apparent. Indeed, its genesis had been hiding painfully in plain sight all his life.
As his niche, Komarow chose people with autism and their families. In point of fact, the former Prudential advisor was himself only recently diagnosed with the disorder. He was 27.
Two years later, in 2018, he founded Planning Across the Spectrum (PATS), specializing in helping people with autism and other disabilities attain financial security, providing financial planning along with guidance on making benefits-related and other life decisions.
“Unique needs require specialized knowledge” is Komarow’s trademarked slogan, as he tells ThinkAdvisor in an interview.
About a year before he launched PATS, the advisor, now 30, co-founded another practice, Tenpath Financial Group. It focuses on asset management and insurance for a general clientele. Depending on needs, PATS clients avail themselves of Tenpath’s services, too.
The super-productive Komarow, who requires less support than many on the autism spectrum, also creates financial plans for other advisors with clients who have autism. A different part of his business helps employers design benefits packages for people with autism, as well as those with various other disabilities.
The fact that Komarow, who personally manages assets of $75 million, lives in the “whole other world” of autism, as he puts it, clearly qualifies him to guide parents of autistic children through the maze of government disability benefits and support services, and to provide appropriate financial plans.
Autism spectrum disorder is “characterized by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech and nonverbal communication,” according to Autism Speaks. Today, autism affects about one in 59 children in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control.
Komarow showed some of autism’s typical signs in early childhood. He didn’t speak till he was about 4 and was held back a year in school. He continued struggling with academic and social issues, which led him to quit high school and obtain a GED diploma.
Professional evaluation, from age 13, brought diagnoses of anxiety and depression, but not autism.
Now, as a financial advisor, Komarow sums up: “Autism helps me in all the ways it hurts me.”
For example, in the interview, he describes how traits such as being highly analytical and technically oriented are of help but that difficulty concentrating and sometimes failing to pick up social cues plainly are not.
A Connecticut native with a B.S. in financial planning and technology from Charter Oak State College and a master’s from The American College of Financial Services, Komarow has also earned a slew of professional designations — 15 of them, including Certified Financial Planner and Chartered Special Needs Consultant. He is on the boards of The Alumni Association of the American College and the FOCUS Center for Autism.
ThinkAdvisor recently interviewed the hybrid advisor, who was speaking by phone from his office in Farmington, Connecticut. In addition to comprehensive planning and the other substantial services he offers, Komarow also furnishes a cool online calendar of autism-focused events. Right now it highlights a robotics class for autistic teens and young adults, and a discussion on learning to drive with autism.
Here are excerpts from our interview:
THINKADVISOR: Before starting your own practice, you were a financial planner at Prudential. What prompted you to leave?
ANDREW KOMAROW: I think a lot of individuals with autism don’t fit in well in a corporate environment, especially the most old and rigid insurance companies. I thought there had to be a better way. Also, in working with clients, I like to take a really complicated deep dive, and I felt I couldn’t do that [as much] with high-net-worth clients.
Part of your business is helping other financial planners serve families with autism. Why do these FAs come to you?
They realize that they don’t know this whole other world. We do — because we live it. It’s another world that’s almost impossible to understand unless you’re in it.
What do people with autism need from a planner that’s different from what neurotypical clients need?
The entire world of services and benefits isn’t as simple as just Medicare and Medicaid. Families are dealing with the struggles of getting services, resources and support — not just financially but in all sorts of ways. You run into things that are a lot more challenging from a planning perspective.
Disability rules and health care benefits. You’re not just planning for retirement; you’re planning for well beyond that: Where will the person live? How will they be supported?
You’ve said that the bar is set too low for people with autism, that they need to have practical skills when they leave home. Please elaborate.
Ninety percent of individuals with autism are unemployed. That’s a higher percentage than for other disabilities. I was recently talking to a prospect who has a 7-year-old son with autism. She was very concerned about his being unemployed [as an adult] and wanted to plan for that. But in [interviewing] her, I reframed the conversation by first asking what her son’s IQ [score] was. That’s one of the important things to know because in many states, the services a person gets depends on their IQ.
What was the boy’s score?
150 — genius [level]. So I told his mother: “I think that with your son, at seven years old having a 150 IQ, we should be doing everything possible to encourage him to be happy and successful down the road. Our plan should have the possibility that he’ll be employed. I’m not saying there won’t be struggles or that there isn’t a chance he won’t be, however.”
At what point should financial planning begin for a child with autism?
Most of the time, parents come to us when their children are 18 or 21 because up till then, they get services from the school system. But planning should start a lot sooner than that. My goal is that I want everyone to plan earlier; but the reason most people come to us is because they haven’t done that, and they’re stuck in a maze.
As an FA who has autism, what are some of your challenges?
I find it hard to sit still and concentrate. Sometimes I’m overly honest, and I don’t recognize certain social cues. I can be rigid. I keep an inflexible schedule. I don’t like being around light. Certain textures and certain foods bother me. I’m very detail- and task-oriented; so I need to take care of everything right away — I have no unread emails in my inbox.
How do you overcome these challenges?
I can adapt to some. For instance, I get in very early in the morning when there are no distractions so that I can catch up before the day begins. I have six monitors in my office: I use them for different Windows. It helps me stay more organized.
Does being autistic help you as a planner?
Yes. I like technical, analytic things and facts. I see patterns. I’m very good at math, except for geometry when I was in school. I like solving problems. My mind always goes to the worst-case scenario. That makes me a good planner because I’m always thinking: What’s the worst that can happen? — and then coming up with solutions.
You had your own computer repair business when you were 19. Tell me about that.
I loved it because I love technology, and I love solving problems and fixing something that’s broken. I can’t create, although I can fix anything. But because computers were so cheap, I found myself recommending that people buy a new one instead of paying me to fix the one they had. I wasn’t making much money.
What led you to working in financial services?
I was having lunch with my uncle, who was an advisor at Prudential, and he said, “They’ll hire anyone.” I said, “Will they hire me?”
So at 21 — before you were diagnosed with autism — you joined Prudential’s FA training program. Did you like the work?
Individuals with autism have what’s called a “special interest.” And if you ask them about it, they’ll go on and on forever. I loved getting paid for answering questions about financial planning and solving people’s problems.
You weren’t diagnosed with autism until you were 27. How did it come about?
After I left Prudential, I had a therapist; and in [one of the sessions], I told her about a TV series I watched called “Atypical” [about a teen on the autism spectrum with fixation on Antarctica and penguins]. I joked that I thought I had [symptoms] of autism because I had some of the same mannerisms as [the TV character] and as a kid, I loved penguins.
What did your therapist say?
She said, “’You absolutely do have autism.’ I was shocked. What I figured autism was, wasn’t me, so I thought. [Obviously], I didn’t even know what autism was — and I have it! Then I [participated in] some clinical studies to learn more about autism. They pointed out some [symptoms] I have that I never would have noticed [as being autistic]. I thought everyone experienced some of the things that I do — like being bothered by light or becoming very anxious if my routine gets mixed up. I thought a lot of the things were normal.
Why weren’t you diagnosed when you were a child?
My father was very against taking me to a doctor [for evaluation], though I had all the typical symptoms, like I didn’t speak until much later [than average]. When I was born — in 1989 — autism was still relatively underdiagnosed or misdiagnosed. From the time I was 13, I was misdiagnosed with having other things, like anxiety and depression.
In school, was it hard scholastically or socially?
Both. I really like the things I’m good at. So I excel in certain areas; and in certain other areas, no matter how much I try, I can never do better. Socially as well.
Many people are worried because the incidence of autism seems to be on the rise. Is it?
I don’t think there’s more autism today than there was, though there’s a direct correlation between other mental health diagnoses going down and autism diagnoses increasing. I think that has more to do with an increase in people being incorrectly diagnosed with autism.
Why is that happening?
If you have autism, you get more services from the school system and insurance. So parents may check the box for autism, when autism isn’t really the main factor. And there’s a big shortage of qualified medical professionals who really understand autism because it’s not as simple as: If you check this box, you meet the criteria.
Do you still have the autism-related struggles that you’ve described?
A lot of the same ones. But now I know why I have them. Autism helps me, though, in all the ways it hurts me. I think what makes me a good financial planner is that I think a little bit differently in coming up with solutions.
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