By Annie Makoff Members Unlocking potential: how autistic colleagues can flourish in finance 4 Jul 2023 Discover effective approaches to requesting and implementing workplace accommodations, inspired by the experiences of neurodiverse accountancy professionals. The American autistic professor Dr Stephen Shore famously said: “If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.” Yet his words are often forgotten or disregarded. Many organisations and well-meaning individuals make unhelpful assumptions based on limited experience. The autistic spectrum is as diverse as it is complex and a lack of understanding can lead to barriers and stumbling blocks for neurodiverse individuals, particularly when it comes to employment. Accountancy can be a great career for some neurodiverse individuals due to required skillsets around problem-solving, attention to detail, memory retention and the focus on processes and systems. But employers may need to make ‘reasonable adjustments’ to harness their capabilities. We spoke to three individuals in accountancy who are on the autistic spectrum about how their colleagues and companies have helped them to thrive. “Accountancy allows me to embrace my need for efficiency” Rosie Weldon, Zodeq A diagnosis of any sort is often perceived negatively, but not for Rosie Weldon, senior financial analyst at Zodeq. For Rosie, life changed from being an uphill struggle to suddenly making sense. “I’d struggled for years and just didn’t know why,” she explains. “The actual catalyst was when I had a work placement during my second year of university – I just couldn’t do it. There was no way I could walk into the building.” It was during subsequent discussions with her academic tutor, who noticed Rosie couldn’t make eye contact and who reflected on Rosie’s other difficulties, that autism was first suggested. Rosie was officially diagnosed shortly afterwards. “It just made complete sense,” she says. Rosie’s neurodiversity affects her personal life “a million times more” than it does professionally. Eating, sleeping, getting dressed, leaving the house: daily chores and choices cause a lot of anxiety and stress. This is not the case professionally: Zodeq identified Rosie’s unique skillsets from the first interview and designed the job around her to play to Rosie’s strengths. “Zodeq know not to put me on the phone to talk to clients for example, and they allow me to work from home in my own environment because I find change difficult.” Flexibility works both ways: Rosie often works late into the evenings if she’s “hyper-focused”. “I like things to be right. I have a very black-and-white mind. My mindset is on finding the most efficient way of doing things. I’m handed a process, and I just have to find a better way of doing it. I’ve reduced processes that ordinarily take days or even weeks to complete to one morning a week. If there is a way to make something work better, I’ll find it.” She has been lucky in finding a company that values her skills and diversity of thought while making reasonable adjustments to allow her to thrive. “The one thing employers can do to make things easier for people who are neurodiverse is just to listen,” she says. “It’s not complicated. You don’t have to spend money on reasonable adjustments, just find out what that individual needs.” Rosie’s key points: Identify the strengths in your neurodiverse colleagues and make adjustments to help encourage good performance Flexibility helps encourage autistic team members feel comfortable Listen to your neurodiverse colleagues “Accountancy showed me I’m not broken – I just think differently” Gavin Simpson, Travis Perkins Gavin Simpson was only diagnosed with autism this year, but had spent most of his life feeling different. A former truck driver turned finance data analyst and management accountant at Travis Perkins, he knows how a lack of understanding of neurodiversity can hold someone back. “I struggle with some social situations and I’m really fussy with stuff – our knives and forks in our drawer at home have to match. I also have loads of thoughts going round my head at once and I can lose my chain of thought,” Gavin explains. Gavin found school hard and he struggled to make friends. It wasn’t until one of Gavin’s employers gave him the opportunity to work as a traffic dispatcher that everything changed for the better. “I needed to use Excel for the role but I didn’t have a clue initially,” he admits. “I read a book about it on Eurostar on the way to Disneyland with my kids. Within weeks, I was building complex databases and automating processes. My manager said, ‘How do you do that!?’ I ended up training him! It just felt natural. I suddenly discovered these skills I never knew I had.” That was the turning point: Gavin was put on a management development programme and discovered a passion for management accounting, and everything fell into place. Ten years on, Gavin is a part-qualified management accountant CIMA professional in a role he loves and he’s learning to use his neurodiverse skills to his advantage. “I can think in 3D,” he explains. “I recently built a two-storey playhouse for the kids. The plans were all in my head. I could visualise it, spin it around like a 3D object and see how it would fit together. It’s the same in my finance role. I can easily visualise the workings of month-end processes and complex systems and create them from scratch.” Recently, Gavin created a bespoke supply chain return process for Travis Perkins’ 600 branches. He looked at existing databases and built an automated system in a month that sped up stock redistribution, saving the company thousands. There have been challenges. Gavin finds it hard to ‘read a room’ and he finds small talk difficult. But with a set agenda or process, Gavin is in his element. “I can concentrate deeply on something for hours. I can also spot patterns and errors really easily when others can’t.” Understanding and awareness from line managers is essential for people like Gavin. “When managers have micromanaged me in the past, it becomes sensory overload and I just can’t function,” he explains. It’s taken him years, but Gavin has a much better understanding of his neurodiversity and the environment he needs. “I’m not broken, I’m just different,” he says. “How many people are doing menial jobs without realising their full potential because of their neurodiversity?” Gavin’s key points: Process and/or a set agenda can be important to some autistic staff members Some autistic team members may be able to spot efficiencies and improve processes rapidly Be sensitive to autistic team members’ needs, as micromanagement can be distressing “Accountancy allows me to explore my interests” Harry Smith, Azets Harry Smith became something of a local celebrity recently when he landed his first permanent role at Azets as an accounts assistant after successfully completing an internship at the firm. Harry, who was first diagnosed with autism at eight years old and also has ADHD and dyspraxia, has always had a passion for numbers and technology. It’s no surprise, then, that working with Azets and immersing himself in technology and accountancy appeals to his preferred way of working. “I love how methodical the profession is,” he explains. There are aspects that Harry struggles with – particularly social elements. “If I’m talking to someone in person, I look at their mouth to see when they’ve finished talking.” So what can employers and colleagues to do help? Harry appreciated, for example, the opportunity to deliver a speech about autism when he first started at Azets. It gave colleagues the opportunity to learn more about autism. Harry’s key points: Openness is crucial to understanding the nature of your colleagues’ neurodiversity Awareness among colleagues of the nature of autism can help autistic staff members navigate the social elements of their jobs How to make adjustments Neurodiverse colleagues are entitled to reasonable adjustments at work. If you’re unsure what that might mean in practice, here are some examples: Noise-cancelling headphones help to block out background noise in a busy office or warehouse A screen filter for a laptop or desktop PC monitor, which can minimise the risk of sensory overload Use of a quiet part of the workplace, which can avoid noise and movement that can trigger sensory overload Time management and project management apps can help with scheduling tasks Instant messaging and text-to-speech apps for those who are non-verbal or are not confident in using the phone or face-to-face conversation Flexible hours, ie, a working pattern to suit the needs and body clock of an autistic employee Exemption from team meetings and social gatherings, such as permission to miss team-building exercises, meetings and team nights out Exemption from meeting clients where the employee struggles with communication issues Line managers should think about how they communicate with neurodiverse employees. The National Autistic Society recommends: Write down instructions and tasks Give short, clear instructions Break down larger tasks into smaller components Create a regular timetable of tasks to add structure to the work day How to ask for reasonable adjustments You can request reasonable adjustments be made for your work if you think you need them. Ask your employer for a meeting to request reasonable adjustments. Before your meeting, think about the following points: What reasonable adjustments do you need? What sensory issues do you experience? Is there any equipment available that helps? How much does it cost? When you hold the meeting, explain what adjustments you need to do your job and relate them to autism, if possible Find a helpful and caring mentor A mentor or coach can help untangle issues such as unwritten office rules and confusing instructions. Useful resources Apply for Access to Work funding You can apply for the Access to Work funding if you have got an interview coming up, you have just started a job, you are self-employed or are in a job already. Access to Work can pay for travel, equipment and awareness training for your workplace. Specialist recruiters such as Enna help recruit diverse staff Charities and organisations such as the National Autistic Society provide advice for employers, and run training courses. Annie Makoff is a freelance journalist and editor.