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?