Autism and my actuarial career
Actuary and neurodiversity consultant, Alicja Nocon, shares her personal experience of working as an actuary on the autism spectrum as part of our series of blogs on neurodiversity in the profession.
When did you receive a diagnosis? What impact did it have?
My diagnosis came in adulthood, which is a similar story for many autistic women.
In school, I was competitive and did well academically. I was a shy and quiet child and loved animals, mathematics and languages. My autism flew under the radar in school, as the environment was very structured, which suited my needs. This changed when I started working life and progressed up the ladder. Navigating a constantly changing environment with unclear rules and having my senses overloaded by the London commute made me ‘run low on spoons’ – that is to say, it was draining. My search for the root cause of my difficulties led me to the autism spectrum diagnosis.
Receiving the autism spectrum diagnosis in later life has been a gift. It has allowed me to make sense of my past experiences, be more accepting of who I am and gave me a ‘permission slip’ to ask for what I need, even if I am in the minority.
Did your autism affect your choice of career?
I do not think it is possible to separate autism from who I am, so I would say absolutely! My passion for mathematics and statistics should not come as a surprise as research shows that people with superior mathematical abilities are more likely to be on the autism spectrum. This is because autistic people tend to have a greater ability to detect patterns and derive rules (’systemise’). For me, it was important to choose a career that utilises my mathematical strengths and does societal good. Becoming an actuary was the perfect fit.
However, I would like to point out that not all autistic people have an interest in mathematics or sciences. In fact, you will find autistic people excel in a variety of fields, including arts, medicine, social psychology and stand-up comedy. Some well-known autistic comedians include Fern Brady, Hannah Gadsby and Joe Wells.
What are the challenges that you have faced as an actuary on the autism spectrum?
The way I experience the world as an autistic person has been beneficial in my actuarial career as a whole, but autism can also be disabling. Like many autistic people, I find social communication and interaction more difficult. Navigating the unwritten social rules of the workplace can be anxiety-provoking, although the distress may not always be visible.
As a result of being technically strong, it was assumed in my previous roles that I did not need support with stakeholder management. During that time, it was unknown to me and my colleagues that I was autistic. In reality, because of my so-called ‘spikey profile’, a neurodiverse feature where an individual possesses great strengths in some areas but difficulties in others, I found it hard to read people’s intentions and my kindness was at times exploited without me realising it.
But, with my clinical diagnosis of the autism spectrum condition, I am now more aware of my strengths and the areas where extra coaching or mentoring support may be needed.
Have employers/colleagues been supportive and understanding?
For the majority of my actuarial career, I was not aware that I was autistic. Most of my employers and colleagues have been supportive of me as a whole person, and not just someone who is on the spectrum. I was fortunate to work with compassionate and understanding managers who considered and respected, as much as possible, my needs and preferred ways of working.
One example of a supportive response in the workplace was on my return from a short period of being off-work due to autistic burnout. My manager, a HR representative and myself, reviewed my Wellness Action Plan and implemented new support structures, which reduced my challenges significantly. These included more frequent check-ins with my manager, permission to work in a quiet area to wind down at the end of the day and internal coaching. This demonstrates that adjustments do not need to be costly and can maximise an employee’s potential.
Could and should industry be more supportive of autism?
I feel that more can be and needs to be done by the industry to raise awareness, understanding and acceptance of the autism spectrum condition, as well as other neurodiverse conditions such as AD(H)D and dyslexia. Neurodiverse conditions are still often presented through a medical lens of impairments and disorders, ignoring the strengths that neurodiverse individuals can bring. With some small adjustments, these strengths can be harnessed to benefit organisations, the industry and the whole society.
The COVID-19 pandemic challenged the way people work and communicate. Now is the perfect time to consider the use of technology and new ways of working in the post-COVID-19 world and how they can be utilised to create an inclusive and high-performing working environment for everyone no matter what their neurotype.
IFoA has worked with the National Autistic Society to produce online guidance for actuaries, prospective actuaries and the employers of actuaries around autism and the actuarial profession.