With more support, neurodivergent could fill skills gapby
Will Cole chats with management accountant and neurodiversity advocate Gavin Simpson about his experiences navigating the financial profession as a neurodiverse person, and discusses what can be done to better support individuals working in the sector.
For those in the neurodivergent community, the path to success is often not straightforward. This is something that Gavin Simpson, financial analyst and neurodiversity advocate, has come to understand intimately.
Simpson (left), who only recently received an official diagnosis of autism, has taken a winding career path in order to find his passion in the financial sphere. However, he believes that his autism was more of an ability than a disability that has helped him to succeed.
“Within a month of [working in a finance role] I thought ‘Oh my God, I’m in the right place,’” Simpson said, adding that he believes “the neurodiverse brain and accountancy go hand in hand”.
“When I started to learn a bit about management accounts, I thought: ‘I like this.’ I’m good with money and everything felt logical and in order. Again, that’s another autistic trait.”
Simpson thinks that many neurodivergent people find themselves gravitating towards the accounting and finance profession, with many, like him, likely not even knowing they have the condition. “I think there’s a big percentage of people in accountancy that are neurodivergent and don’t even know it,” Simpson said.
An uphill battle
However, in the years prior to his diagnosis, Simpson found himself battling a variety of obstacles, noting that his condition, as well as a lack of understanding over it, held him back at times. “I left school thinking I’ve got to do manual work. In fact, that’s what my school told me I should go and do – I thought I was a little bit thick to be honest,” Simpson said. This led him to work in a variety of positions including jobs in factories and as a bin man.
It wasn’t until one of his employers offered Simpson the opportunity to join the company’s management development programme that he began to find his passion for finance.
“They asked me if I knew what Excel was and I’d never heard of it. So I bought a book that weekend and, within three weeks, I was teaching my manager, just like it was a language that I’ve always subconsciously known that just made sense to me,” said Simpson.
Yet, even during his time working in finance, the lack of education and understanding around autism left Simpson feeling isolated from colleagues, something which severely affected his mental health.
“I wondered why I am so different from everyone else. And it started to dawn on me then that something wasn’t right. I had to ask myself: ‘Is this why I don’t gel with people? Am I broken?’ I had some severe depression and black moments.”
Further steps are needed
The depression and anxiety Simpson felt is not uncommon in the neurodiverse community and businesses lack the tools to support them.
Mentioning the recent developments made by larger firms such as EY in creating better opportunities for those with more complex needs, Simpson remained unimpressed with the level of support for the neurodiverse community in the accounting profession, arguing that firms are simply “not doing enough”.
“Firms want to have a neurodiverse workforce – they realise the benefits to an extent – but they’re setting people up to fail from the start, because they’re not putting the support network in. As a neurodivergent person, you can feel so lonely, and without that support network, without that understanding, people aren’t going to thrive,” Simpson said.
Expanding on this, Simpson said that creating the right environment was key to creating better support, noting that businesses can make a variety of changes to ensure their neurodivergent staff members are comfortable.
“Can you get them a permanent desk to help with their routine? Can you have a quiet area for them? You can also make changes to lighting as well – not having too much really bright direct lighting.”
Aside from creating a supportive environment, Simpson also said that much of the progress will come down to better education of firm owners and their staff, noting that the value-add for businesses hiring neurodiverse individuals should be a huge driver.
“Firms need to educate themselves and educate their workforce about the neurodiverse community. They need to do this because they’re missing that value add for their business,” Simpson explained. “Someone who’s neurodiverse, if you’ve got them in the right place, is going to give you 110%. While this isn’t the best analogy for accountants, you can be sure they will become loyal, dedicated employees if you get it right for them.”
Simpson went on to say that neurodiverse individuals could also help to lessen the impact of the skills gap currently ravaging the accounting profession for firms willing to be open-minded in their hiring practices.
“We’ve got a massive skills gap in the UK and there are all these people that are super intelligent. They might not be able to sit for a job interview, might not be able to give eye contact, or might struggle to work in the office. However, they would be amazing accountants if you gave them the chance and could absolutely fill that skills gap.”
Simpson was keen to emphasise that, while businesses making these changes are important, it all comes down to the needs and requirements of the specific individual. “It’s essential to remember that everyone is different. If you’ve met one autistic person, you’ve only met one autistic person. You’ve got to go out there and embrace your neurodivergent team members and understand them and, until you do, you can’t really support an autistic person in the workplace,” Simpson concluded.
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