A note on language: Some people are advocates for person-first language, for example stating that they have Autism. Others are strong advocates in the opposite direction, using identity language, stating that they are Autistic. Many others don’t care and like to order language for ease of use and flow of conversation. We use this later model of language. Not everyone with a neurodivergence views themselves as disabled. Others are acutely aware of the disabling elements of their neurotype. Ask what your clients prefer when they address a neurodivergence.

Across all abilities and needs

One of the first things an advocate will tell you about Autism is “When you know one person with Autism, you know one person with Autism.” Autism impacts people in very broad range across their ability to understand social cues, form and keep meaningful relationships, process information in sequence, and experience sensory inputs with varying degrees of complexity. Some Autistic individuals are fully reliant on others to help them communicate their needs while others do not outwardly appear to have trouble with anything. The wider term neurodiverse encompasses not just Autistic individuals but also other unique brain types, such as ADHD, Tourette Syndrome, Dyslexia and others. 

In our conversation, we will address these clients from the perspective of neurodiversity with a slight preference for Autism, but will not be speaking about the individuals with any additional intellectual disability. These are professionals or people who are working towards employment who may struggle keeping a job due to their socioemotional skills and habits, ability to organize themselves and their tasks in a meaningful way, and move beyond other emotional realities of burnout, repetitive thinking, and anxiety.

Across all income levels

Neurodivergent (individual noun) individuals work in all forms of employment at all income levels. They will come to financial coaching and advising for many different reasons. Some will not struggle at all with their financial management and will be seeking out investment management from a financial planning firm like the author’s firm. 

People with Dyscalculia have difficulty differentiating numbers, as is the case with Dyslexia for written language. These individuals may need support in monitoring themselves when writing checks and reading irregular bills. Support can come from family, professionals, or through automation. 

Others will struggle with the questions of where the money goes each month, regardless of their income level. They may struggle with debt or they may have just not been able to save at the end of each month. They may have impulse control and need to establish systems that they can rely on for better decision-making. These clients may benefit from some budget work, but we often find that forming systems for good habits may be the better path.

Common themes in our planning relationships

You may find it meaningful to ask the client if they want you to be supported in finding their own solution or being told what to do. What works for you and most people you know, may not work for a neurodivergent client. Try to get at the root of their communication preferences at the beginning of your work with them. 

We are often encouraged to use open-ended questions to get to know our clients. That may cause a stalled-out conversation with our clients who don’t follow what you are trying to ask. Future thinking is another challenge for many of our clients. Focus on today, and the practices that will be helpful for the future such as savings, but don’t expect your client to be able to tell you why they are saving beyond for what they spend their money on now.

Self-doubt and shame (or blame)

Many times when we are getting to know a client, they share their past failures, and will either self-blame or more broadly blame those around them, their environment or “the system.” Our neurodivergent clients sometimes believe that they are struggling only because they are “not neurotypical” and that things must be easier for “them.” It is important as clinicians to address that quickly and loudly. Financial management is difficult for everyone and just because they have struggled in the past only means that they haven’t found the right path for them to be successful. These feelings of shame can appear through repetitive thinking and intrusive thoughts. These ideas or others of high anxiety may repeat in your counseling conversations. Address in the beginning and move on. 

Things we do to address the challenges

  1. Be direct. If you need to give more than one option, point to one as preferred and why. Link it back to why they came to you in the first place. They may want to go deep in the weeds or off on a different subject. Bring it back to why they came to you and how you plan to help and cut out the periphery.
  2. Limit the chit-chat from you when appropriate. It is often unhelpful and sometimes a detriment to the person’s comfort in working with you. Teasing and joking have their place in some communication partners, but to others, it is just confusing and not helpful to the direction of the conversation.
  3. Automate your client’s finances wherever possible. I have heard from multiple people the words “automation saved my life.” Get payments on a schedule, have them change the schedule of their payments to make it work for their cash flow streams, and get things paid by autopay. Set up automatic allocations to debt and savings. Have them keep track of what is still coming by email and mail and make sure they have a calendar system to address those oddball payments that don’t get automatically paid.
  4. Be aware of overwhelm. The subject matter of your conversation is stressful enough but there might be other reasons that a client can become stressed during your conversation. Make sure they are meeting in a comfortable place for them, that they don’t need to have a camera on if you are meeting together on zoom, that you limit brightness, and smells whenever possible in your office. Sensory overstimulation can already leave your client exhausted. If they need a break in your meeting or meetings have to be shorter to get through your agenda, change the way you are meeting with your clients. Don’t try to push through a meeting that is going south when you notice anxiety rising, voices rising, and other body language cues that someone is uncomfortable. Pause a meeting and reschedule if you need to so you can address why they came to you and not be focused on the overwhelm.
  5. Be prepared with support and detail. We are often meeting with hyper detail-oriented and critical thinkers. They will not take you for your word necessarily. Make sure to back up your advice with how-tos, including notes from your meeting, who agreed to do what, when, and why.

Finally remember that while a client has not disclosed a diagnosis, it doesn’t mean that they don’t have one. Many are not comfortable sharing their diagnosis based on past experiences from school, friendships and employment. Not everyone with a neurodivergence will have a diagnosis or know to pursue one. Be aware of different communication styles with all of your clients and be flexible, knowing that what will work with some, will not work with all. It is not within our jobs as financial counselors or planners to comment on psychological health and well-being other than to refer to other professionals. We recommend you have some in your back pocket.

Written by Elizabeth Wolleben Yoder, CFP® Director of Financial Planning at Planning Across the Spectrum, a specialized financial planning firm with the main goal to provide pathways to more financial wellness and inclusion for neurodivergent individuals and others with disabilities. 

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