Working with neurodiversity

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Neurodiversity is widely misunderstood. Here’s how two neurodivergent people are successfully working in accountancy, how they adapt their working lives to cope, and an expert’s views on what employers can do to support them.

Being open about ADHD

Carl Reader is an entrepreneur, head of franchising and director at d&t chartered accountants, a multi-award winning accountancy practice, and a finalist for Practitioner of the Year at the British Accountancy Awards. Yet when he dropped out of school at 15, he thought his issues around education and achievement were because he was “a naughty kid”. It wasn’t until he was 35 that he was diagnosed as having ADHD and several years later before he decided to speak openly about it.

Carl is a business expert, qualified accountant and the founder of the #BeYourOwnBoss movement. He’s also chairman of business advisory firm d&t, which has over 2,500 clients in the UK, and director of 3 other businesses.

“I didn’t actually try to be different, I think I just was different,” he says. “Being the odd one out has worked in my favour, but also had its challenges with it as well. I became a trainee accountant when I was 16 and in the early days of training to become an accountant, I would try to fit in. However, I realised I was good at being able to relate to clients, speak to them, go out and visit them, and add value to their businesses.

“By my mid 20s I decided that it was ridiculous that I was buying suits and ties and trying to look a lot older and act or older than I was, and conform to the world of accounting, which really wasn’t me. So I made the decision to wear the clothes I was comfortable in. and do things in a way that I was comfortable with. I decided to allow my natural way of thinking to drive what I felt was best for my clients and for the business.

“So that entailed me stepping away from day to day technical work. I haven’t done tax returns, accounts productions for years and years. Instead I focused on where my skill sets were and where my personality sat best.”

Encouraging people to play to their strengths

The turning point came when he decided to define his values as a person and in business, which were to have utmost honesty, transparency and integrity.

“That was really what drove me to talk about the neurodiversity, which for me has caused a number of challenges,” he says. “So many people talk about ADHD as a superpower, and I really wish I could look at it in that way. Actually, I feel like I’m a very rare person saying this, but it is debilitating so often in my daily life. I can spend an hour or two just trying to find my keys or my phone to get out of the door.

“There are powers such as being hyper-focussed when you’re truly invested in something plus the creativity that comes from being able to think outside the box. The downsides can be extremely crippling and have a massive effect on personal life, but in spite of that I’m actually able to function and I do okay in society and I have 100 ideas before most people have breakfast.”

He says that the whole conversation around diversity of thinking is about how to create a balanced team in organisations, where everyone has the opportunity to play to their strengths.

Adapting to working with autism

Jayd’n Sarrington, 18, is an assistant accountant at The Beauty Accountant and is studying AAT Level 3. He received his ASD diagnosis at age 8 but it wasn’t until he started secondary school that he began to feel different and experience some challenges linked to his autism.

“I couldn’t say I was ever bullied for being neurodivergent, but I did feel that people didn’t understand what it meant to be autistic and that sometimes the term was used by younger people in high school as a synonym for stupid,” he says. “I also used to come home from school feeling really burnt out and need to sleep.”

Jayd’n studied for GCSEs at Walton High in Milton Keynes, and then chose to do an apprenticeship with AAT rather than sitting his A levels. He is currently studying Level 3 AAT at Milton Keynes College and aims to complete his study to Level 4 AAT.

The challenges of autism when studying and learning

“The challenge for me around autism is having black and white thinking and just taking things literally both in an academic setting and also in a social setting too,” he says. “So sometimes the questions in the AAT exams expect you to read between the lines and that can be difficult for me.

“On the personal side, I can struggle with the standards and societal expectations. When I am getting ready to go out and face the world, it’s like taking a deep breath. Then when you’re outside, you’re holding your breath. If things go wrong while you’re taking in that deep breath, then it can make everything else really overwhelming.”

Thanks to support from his mum, Jayd’n successfully enrolled at college and is enjoying his studies.

Jayd’n has an EHC (Education, health and care) plan in place and he and his mum work with the college to help tutors understand how Jayd’n prefers to communicate, what might trigger him to feel overwhelmed, and extra support around stressful events such as taking exams, including putting access arrangements in place so that he sits his exams in a smaller room and has extra time allowed.

Making an impact on lives and businesses

“I love accountancy because there is the opportunity to work with a wide range of people,” he says. “You can make a big impact as an accountant, especially now when people are more interested in starting their own businesses and they need your support and guidance.

“I also enjoy studying and learning about accountancy in depth and having the space to spend time learning more about the subject. Even for people who do not necessarily want to be an accountant, having the AAT qualification gives them a deep and useful knowledge on tax laws and how to structure your business. I have found college to be supportive environment and my tutor is really good at communicating with me,” he says. “Masking isn’t as big of an issue there because I feel like I’m pretty well understood.”

Jayd’n says more education is needed to help schools, colleges and workplaces understand the challenges that go with autism.

“I think a lot of people are actually unaware of how masking works and how it may seem like an autistic person is like coping and it’s fine, but actually underneath they are struggling,” he says. “From an employer’s perspective as well, understanding the sensory impact of lights, smells and noises and making adaptations to the office environment can be really helpful.”

How can employers support neurodivergent workers?

He says employers can educate themselves on spotting signs like the tapping of a pen or physical rocking which indicate that an autistic person is feeling overwhelmed. They can offer support by offering to help them move rooms to somewhere quieter, get a coffee or help the person change their environment for a while. Many autistic people also struggle with anxiety, which can take the form of stomach pains and GI issues, and employers can be sensitive around giving them toilet breaks and not drawing attention to their absences.

“It would be good for employers and educators to seek out information on autism and other forms of neurodivergence,” Jayd’n says. “It is very common for people to have a surface level understanding of autism and ADHD, for example, but really these are just stereotypes because everyone’s different and not every person with ADHD or autism will respond or want to communicate in the same way.”

Starting the conversation about inclusivity

Nathan Whitbread, the Neurodivergent coach, who is dyslexic, works with individuals and employers to shape neuroinclusive workplaces.

“We need to start a conversation about what adjustments people need in the workplace,” he says. “I don’t think you can fundamentally change yourself as an individual, but you can put strategies in place to help you manage.

“It is about what we need to do as a culture and as businesses to help people amplify their strengths and manage the things they find tricky, both as an individual but also as teams. As we work with individuals who think differently, instead of thinking about how to fix them, why don’t we think about the team we need to put in place to enable them to be the most effective they can be?

“There is a lot of good research that suggests that people who think differently and collaborate well can solve more complex problems better because they come up with different angles.”

Jayd’n says his autism means he is good at getting clients to send in documents and abide by deadlines, which is a great strength in accountancy.

“It’s really important that people seek out education on neurodiversity in general, just to open up the doors for communication. That would make working life a lot easier for people who are neurodivergent,” he says.

Marianne Curphey is an award-winning financial writer and columnist, and author of the book How Money Works. She worked as City Editor at The Guardian, deputy editor of Guardian online, and has worked for The Times, Telegraph and BBC.

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