Neurodiversity and the actuarial profession

Autistic pride flag with orange background and multi-coloured icon

Actuary and neurodiversity consultant, Alicja Nocon, marks Autistic Pride Day (18 June) with a short guide to the value of neurodiversity to the financial services sector.

Neurodiversity is a term used to describe the diversity of human brains and minds. Supporters of the neurodiversity movement recognise that there is no single ‘correct’ way of experiencing the world. Much like in nature, no species or habitat is considered preferential and it is their co-existence that is essential to maintain an ecological equilibrium. 

It is estimated that 1 in 7 (15%) people are neurologically different to most of the population – they are ‘neurodivergent’.

Neurodivergence comes with marked differences in sensing the environment, processing information, regulating emotions, managing energy and communication. It includes conditions such as autism (including Asperger’s syndrome), attention deficit (hyperactivity) disorder, dyslexia, dyscalculia, dyspraxia, and more. These conditions exist on a spectrum and impact everyone differently. 

A disability or a superpower?

Experiencing and processing the world differently can be a superpower. For Greta Thunberg, having Asperger’s syndrome helped her in life by enabling her to see things differently than most people. Similarly, Richard Branson attributes many of the skills he required to become a successful entrepreneur to dyslexia.

Nevertheless, neurodivergence can be categorised as a disability under the Equality Act 2010. For example, the National Autistic Society defines autism as a disability. However, not everyone who is neurodivergent considers themselves as disabled and the term itself carries a lot of stigma with it. 

By acknowledging and addressing difficulties that come with being wired differently, employment barriers can be reduced and neurodivergent individuals enabled to flourish and use their unique strengths to benefit an organisation and the society.

Neurodivergent strengths and needs of financial services

According to the 2020 World Economic Forum report, the top three sought-after skills in the financial services sector are:

• analytical thinking and innovation
• critical thinking and analysis, and
• creativity, originality and value

Creativity, a predecessor to innovation, and problem-solving skills are common amongst all neurodivergent conditions. Therefore, it should not come as a surprise that companies with more diverse management teams have been found to have 19% higher revenue. 

Focusing on the autism spectrum, autistic strengths include attention to detail, methodical approach and strong expertise in the area of interest and are a great match to the skillset that employers look for in an actuary.

Employers in the technology and asset management sector have started to harness the power of autistic thinking. Companies such as SAP and JP Morgan have a special ‘Autism at work’ hiring programme, whilst Auticon, an IT consultancy firm, recruits solely autistic talent.

How to attract and retain neurodiverse talent

In order to harness the power of neurodiverse talent, the focus should be on inclusion first and diversity second.

As little as 22% of autistic people are in any type of employment and nearly half of autistic people who are in work have had an experience of bullying or harassment in the workplace. Therefore, addressing organisational culture and neuro-inclusivity is the first step when it comes to attracting new, and retaining existing, neurodiverse talent. 

1.    Get the language right

Support, understanding and acceptance are the biggest factor that would help neurodiverse people to get into employment, as voiced by the autistic community. And yet, many publications and training providers still use patronising and deficit-based language when talking about neurodiversity. Describing neurodiverse conditions as disorders or equalling neurodiversity with disability are examples of alienating and ‘ableist’ practice. Expand the Circle’s Inclusive language guide provides recommendations on how to create more respectful and accepting conversations around autism in your organisation.

2.    Involve neurodiverse voices

Much of the existing research around autism and other neurodiverse conditions has been conducted by those without their own lived experience. This has resulted in a breakdown in understanding due to differing ways of experiencing the world (“the double empathy problem”). For example, autistic predisposition for logic and pattern seeking is often mis-understood as “rigid thinking”. Therefore, involving neurodiverse voices is paramount to successfully design policies and environments that meet their needs.

3.    Get connected

Neurodiversity awareness and acceptance is an emerging topic within the financial services sector. Nevertheless, there are several organisations and networks that concentrate on promoting neurodiversity in the insurance and related industries. These include GAIN (Group for Autism, Insurance and Neurodiversity), the Diversity Project, the Insurance Families Network and of course IFoA’s Diversity Action Group. These groups provide opportunities for employers, neurodivergent employees and parents and carers of neurodiverse children to connect.

 


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.