There’s no template for making bank branches friendly to autistic people, but Regions Financial is taking a crack at it.

In making accommodations for adults and children with autism and helping its employees to better understand the developmental disorder, the Birmingham, Ala., bank seeks to embrace a group of people who often isolate themselves from society.

The new program is part compliance and part staff training, but there is also a business case to be made for reaching out to affected families.

“If we can create an environment where [autistic people and their families] feel welcome, where we’ve had some additional awareness training, maybe it will make their life a little bit easier in dealing with their financial needs,” said Kathy Lovell, the Americans with Disabilities Act manager at the $126 billion-asset Regions.

Around 3.5 million people in the United States are thought to have an autism spectrum disorder, according to the Autism Society, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that about one in 68 children is on the spectrum.

Simon Dermer, a co-founder of the vendor eSSENTIAL Accessibility, said that in talking with corporate executives, he often encounters the misperception that disabled consumers do not have much in the way of financial services needs because they do not have much income.

More than 56 million people in the U.S. self-identify as disabled, and they have more than $645 billion in disposable income, Dermer said, citing a report from the Return on Disability Group. Their friends and family, he notes, have nearly $4 trillion in disposable income, and signaling support for disabled people sends a positive message to their friends and family, too.

“You say ‘disability’ to a room full of corporate executives, and two things come to mind: doing something philanthropic and abiding by regulatory requirements,” said Dermer, whose firm advises companies on how to make their mobile products and websites more accessible. “We’re trying to get the organization to look at it as a market opportunity.”

Samantha Crane, director of public policy for the Autistic Self Advocacy Network, has also seen a lot of increased interest in creating sensory-friendly events and spaces for autistic people, but said that those are often designed with children in mind.

“If Regions is developing these sensory accommodations with customers in mind, and not just customers' children, that puts it ahead of many comparable businesses,” she said.

Crane added that in addition to branch accommodations, bankers should know that services like low balance alerts, automatic bill payment and fraud detection, can be extremely helpful for their autistic customers, who might sometimes need extra help setting up those functions.

People with disabilities, and their advocates, often stress that they want to conduct their affairs independently. Money management is a key component of an independent life. And in an age when foot traffic to bank branches has been dropping off precipitously, the bank branch may be able to retain some relevance if it can prove itself a welcoming and accommodating channel for people with disabilities.

Regions’ autism-related program has three main components:
· Designation of quiet areas in each of its bank branches;
· Delivery of sensory packs to every branch, containing stress balls, sunglasses and noise-canceling earbuds;
· Production of an educational video to help branch employees understand and recognize autism and better communicate with autistic people.

The sensory packs can help autistic children or adults block out sensory challenges they find overwhelming, and the designated quiet area offers a place to take a breather, rather than having to leave altogether. The video educates branch staff about autism, how to recognize it and how to communicate with an autistic person who might be facing some social, sensory or communication challenges.

The effort started when Lovell attended an event held by the Autism Society of Alabama in 2015. Among other things, the organization provides resources for parents and educators and partners up with venues like museums and baseball stadiums to offer autistic-friendly events. Lovell wanted to know how Regions could better support autistic people and their families.

For that, the company enlisted Dr. Sarah O’Kelley, an assistant professor and clinical psychologist at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Because of how autism can manifest itself, families with autistic children and teenagers often feel they have to leave public places, like restaurants or churches, because of their child’s behavior, she said. And while autistic adults often develop their own strategies for navigating social interactions, deviations from an expected routine can pose challenges, say, if a customer has a problem with his or her bank account.

“People with autism may not exhibit the behaviors that are expected in a quiet banking environment,” O’Kelley said. “They may make sounds or they may not make eye contact. They may not always understand what they’re being asked.”

Looking forward, Lovell said Regions might add an autistic-friendly component into its financial literacy efforts with children and teens. Lovell said she’s still learning about autism herself, but she is thinking in terms of plain-language tutorials with visual aids covering financial basics, like opening a checking account or visiting a branch.

“Just because an individual has a disability does not mean that they don’t have earned income and want to make wise investments,” she said. “I really feel like this supports two of Regions’ core values: doing what is right and making life better.”