Today we’re talking about Autism and financial planning. How being on the spectrum or having family or friends on the spectrum, can affect how we manage money.
This was something that has come up in my community on a number of occasions so I decided to go and seek out somebody who is an expert in this particular topic.
I’m absolutely delighted to welcome Andrew. How are you this afternoon?
I’m doing great. Thank you.
Thank you so much for joining us. Andrew is the founder of Planning Across the Spectrum (an incredible business name!) and he specialises in helping individuals, families and anyone who really need extra support with autism or other disabilities in order to perceive financial independence.
This is really important to me because when we talk about the emotions and behaviours around money, we don’t sometimes think about the consequences or implications for people who are on the spectrum. I have family members who are on the spectrum and this comes up in family conversations as well.
First of all, Andrew, can you tell us a little bit about yourself and what led you to work in this specialist area of Autism and financial planning?
I was a financial planner at a large insurance company for many years. I left and was independent and it wasn’t until only a few years ago, having been a financial planner, that I was diagnosed with autism. That really led me to want to change my business, to really focus a lot more.
The reason I became a financial planner isn’t as clear, it just kind of seemed like it was a good idea at the time when I was 21. Focusing really on those with Autism and financial planning, that was really more a passion that came out of a late diagnosis.
How did that impact you with the fact that it was a late diagnosis?
It was very hard and very great at the same time. It was really awesome to have just a reason for some things, and some things that made sense and even just small little things that I was able to understand.
One of those things is that I don’t do well with open-ended questions, so just saying that to somebody beforehand, right before our podcast, for example. And just more understanding about myself.
Wow. That’s part of the process, isn’t it? It’s actually just understanding what the challenges are for people that are on the spectrum.
My understanding is that for some people there can be different challenges and different symptoms than somebody else who’s also got the same diagnosis.
Andrew, what specific challenges did you face with money yourself after you had that diagnosis? Were there any particular things that when you were growing up around money, you found difficult or challenging in terms of managing money?
One of the unique things about me is, and in a lot of autism, there’s what we call a special interest. It’s that topic that you can’t learn enough about, can’t talk enough about. For me, it happens to be money. So I would say that I’m lucky in the regards that one of the challenges I didn’t have was money because, to take a negative term, I was almost obsessed with it in so many ways. It fascinated me so much.
I would say that’s definitely the exception. It just happens to be my interest, not world history or something else.
What inspired you therefore to use your experiences and things to start your own business?
I think that was part of it, is that even though I had a good understanding of money, because it’s probably one of the only things I have a good understanding of, but I really saw that there was a lack of help, especially in the autism community. Especially when it comes to conversations around money.
There was a gap that needed to be filled and I really wanted to be able to give back and really focus on people who probably need this information the most and they’re getting it the least.
That’s incredible. The clients that you work with Andrew, are they all over the world? What sort of clients do you work with?
I do have clients all over the world. Obviously, some States and countries are different. When people ask how much I charge, my answer is it depends how much I like you! It’s official, but it’s not official.
I like helping people and if somebody’s nice you prefer to work with them. If I don’t get at least a chuckle from somebody on that, then we’re probably not going to be a good fit.
I love that. Build your business based on your passion, but part of that is working with people that you want to work with. So I love that. I’ll charge you however much I like you.
One of the funniest times ever was when the wife said, wow, then we’re definitely screwed because I know my husband and I said, no, it’s okay. I like you a lot so it’ll even out.
Well, thank you for the honesty. I really appreciate that today. Andrew, how did that diagnosis that you received influence your business?
Again, it completely reshaped and changed it. I went from working with a certain subset of clients, not as niche specialised, and I actually always struggled with that. I wanted to work with people who are like me, but I wasn’t really sure. It’s like engineers or analytical. I had clients I liked working with, but it completely changed it. I went from being a generalist, although having clients I liked working with, to really diving all in and focusing on a specific group.
How important was it for you to get that diagnosis? We were having a conversation, literally just this morning in my group where this lady was saying, I’m just really struggling with planning in my business because I’ve got this content diary and I don’t know how to fill it in. It’s too overwhelming. I don’t know where to start.
She’s never had a diagnosis but she’s got some beliefs that maybe she does need to seek some additional support to understand whether a diagnosis would be necessary. What do you think about that, Andrew?
I think it depends on the reason you want a diagnosis. I think it’s extreme. I know it can be really hard to obtain officially, especially for adults and especially women. It can be hard to find somebody.
But some things, for example, I can’t write in a diary either. I mentioned open-ended questions was one of the best realisations to just help me structure. Finding there’s nothing wrong with me if I can’t just start journaling and write something open-ended in a diary. Let me find another way. Let me fill in the blanks from questions that are asked from me.
I think it’s also very self-validating. Even when I was diagnosed, I was like, this can’t be me. This doesn’t make sense. I thought I knew what autism was and I didn’t.
With that in mind, Andrew, and to help me today to interview you on today’s podcast, I’d really appreciate to understand how we can support this conversation in a way that makes it useful to communicate and also to make things easier for us while we’re chatting today.
One of the things that really intrigues me is about how do people deal with money if they are on the spectrum. Would there be any tips around Autism and financial planning, or what would be useful for us to talk about there, Andrew?
I think some of the biggest things are, especially when it comes to anxiety and impulse control, which is not something completely unique to somebody with autism, but almost everyone with autism has that in common. So I find setting up a system where you can help with the impulse control.
I also find if you can take a step back for a day or two or find a reason to delay spending money, as many things as part of a routine, that are repeatable.
I’m going to say something that’s probably quite unpopular. I think budgets are useless. I don’t think anyone actually keeps a budget. I don’t keep a budget, but it’s important to look back at what you’ve done over the past month or two months or three months. See trends and then maybe how you can adjust the trends going forward.
I think financial planning’s overwhelming for everyone. It’s a lot. But I think especially for people with autism and financial planning, breaking it up into just small, meaningful steps. Moving in the right direction a little bit is what’s important.
I love those shares there, because one of the things that we talk about on the podcast is about small steps. It’s about breaking things down into manageable steps, because as you say, that can really help to reduce the anxiety and some of the overwhelm that can be felt around money. I think that’s relevant to whether you’re on the spectrum or not because emotions play a very key part of our emotional relationship with money and how we make decisions.
You talked about automating money. So would that be things like putting money aside for specific things, having specific accounts for certain expenditures and for certain purposes?
Yeah and even if you’re trying to figure out how much you might spend. The easier it is to be able to have something that categorises it for you. The easier that you can have certain things paid for and taken care of automatically the less energy you have to spend. The more things that you can automate but still make sure that they’re taken care of.
Just ignoring things for 20 years usually doesn’t work unless you’ve bought Apple stock and forgot about it.
Damn. I wish I’d done that 20 years ago!
What about for parents of children, whether they’re young children or adult children, is there a difference between how we should manage money when we’re younger versus as we’re going into our adult life?
The answer is yes. When you’re an adult, you actually make it. I think the question has two parts. Let me answer for the parents and I’m going to answer this directed at them.
It’s important to also remember that children are still children. As you mentioned before, a lot of the things that might help with autism are not necessarily unique. There are things that are unique, but sometimes the teenager who wants to stay home and play video games all day, it’s because they’re a teenager. It’s not because they’re on the spectrum. So I think it’s hard to separate that, but also I find a lot of parents are very, for lack of a better term, sheltering of the child. They’re so used to fighting for everything, taking care of everything, doing so much, that I think one of the most important things they can do is almost not shelter in a way.
Include the individual in those decisions and in those choices and let them know what they’re doing and why. I don’t think anyone is beyond advocating for themselves or being able to live as independent as possible.
Keep flexibility. Don’t have in your head as a parent what your child at 8 may or may not be able to do based upon a diagnosis. I find it’s pretty important to be flexible and reasonable.
Great. Creating routines, automating things can be useful. You mentioned there Andrew, that some things are unique and some things are just because they’re an eight year old child and actually talking to kids about money is important anyway, but you did mention that some things are unique.
What sorts of things might be unique?
I would say the level of anxiety, and one thing from my discovery of my autism is I didn’t think I had bad anxiety. I wouldn’t have even described it because I never knew what life was like without anxiety. If you’ve always been that way, how do you know? You don’t know that it’s different.
I think the anxiety and also the impulse control, what we refer to as executive function. Just being able to remember to do certain things. I think my wife is still waiting for me to put the clothes away from the hamper!
There’s certain things I forget to do. It seems so silly that you might think I was drunk. I put the cereal in the fridge and the milk in the cabinet sometimes. So that’s where automating as much as possible I think is really important. Not because it’s laziness, and I think it’s important to not be shameful.
I find many individuals feel like they should know more. They feel like they made lots of mistakes. Plenty of people have stories, and around money and our relationship with money is very complicated. In that way, I find it comforting to say and you can’t ignore it forever.
Bills are one thing that will eventually catch up to you.
Are there any other uniquenesses between people that are on the spectrum and people who are not on the spectrum?
I would say that the benefits and resources available. So getting a job, there’s a lot more complications with that. Health care is bigger concern. There’s usually a lot of coexisting medical conditions and planning for the fact of if you’re receiving any sort of disability benefits.
Being able to work and maintain those benefits. Can you work? There’s more of a maze. Obviously you need your health care. I think that can make it even harder to plan for the long term.
Why is it so much harder to plan for the long term?
I think part of it’s autism and part of it is where again, many on the spectrum we think very “right in front of us”. We get a little too absorbed in the details for seeing the big picture.
When you think about planning for retirement some 30 years plus away, that’s vague and nondescript. That’s probably like the epitome of what we’re not good at planning for.
As you’re saying these things I’m sitting here nodding to myself because all of these things that you’re sharing, I think are so relevant to everybody. Having a vague financial plan and thinking roughly in 30, 40 years time, what am I going to be doing when I retire is very difficult for most people to get their head around. Our brain is just not wired to think about the future. It’s job is to protect us and our job is to protect us in the here and now.
So I’m very curious to this because I think everything that you’re sharing is like these golden nuggets of things that we should all be doing, whether we’re on the spectrum or not.
But I appreciate that there can be higher levels of anxiety. There could be a greater need to go into some of the detail with money and finances if we’re on the spectrum for what you said, Andrew.
What advice would you give to clients or to parents or caregivers around Autism and financial planning in addition to the ones that you’ve already shared?
See that was too vague a question. I’ll call you out on that one! Going back to what you said where a lot of the advice I’m giving is good for everyone. I think that’s the way everything should work, whether it’s employment etc.
It’s universal design meaning there’s nobody on the planet who likes fluorescent lights in the ceiling. Even though somebody with autism may struggle with them a little bit more. So I think focusing on the things that are good, that are repeatable, and also understand that on one hand, the challenges are harder. On the other hand, I think the fact that it’s not that unique in some ways I think most clients find very comforting. And to not feel shame for not starting.
I know many individuals with autism, and families. There’s a lot of one parent households. There’s a lot, usually less income or planning for the disability or, the amount of income potential from working and the amount of extra planning required is even more, so don’t feel bad if you’re getting a late start.
One of the things I find interesting about shame and guilt that you just mentioned there, and I think that’s relevant to so many people, we have so much guilt and shame around money, and actually it’s not the money that creates that. It’s the meaning that we attach to money that creates those feelings.
A hundred percent, I agree with you that one of the first things that we all need to do is to take some opportunity to reflect on decisions that we’ve made and not to beat ourselves up about them because that guilt and shame can sit with us and then actually have an impact on how we make decisions going forward. I think that’s very relevant to most people.
One of the things we’ve been talking about, Andrew in our community is how banks can support people that are on the spectrum.
Where you are, do you find that there are some banks or certain types of accounts that provide maybe different facilities or better functions or different ways to communicate with their customers to help people that are on the spectrum?
I would say for the most part, most of the financial industry is not very good. If you read the literature I have on specialising in financial planning, those with autism, it’s says there’s children who never grow up, people like me don’t exist. It’s all planning for the parents and that the child can never have any money or they’ll spend it. So even if there was something designed, the individual would be turned away.
I think one of the great things is online banking, online apps make it really easy. So I really find this as an area where you don’t have to necessarily look for something that’s, let’s say an autism friendly bank or something that’s specific. What would an autism friendly bank or spending program look like?
I think that’s important to figure out why you’re looking for something so you can figure out what it is. There are certain types of accounts, like over here (in America), there’s what we call able accounts, which are alternatives to college savings for those with disabilities. Those are relatively common.
I think it’s important to find a bank that’s really good online that you never need to go to in person, that ideally you never need to even call somebody. There’s an app called True Bill which will even cancel subscriptions for you. It’s amazing. We use it to cancel a gym membership because if you’ve ever tried to cancel a gym membership, it’s impossible and that causes a lot of anxiety.
Even phone calls dealing with customer services and we’ll just let things go versus wanting to talk to somebody and not cancel the service. This app is not autism specific, but I think it’s amazing for anyone who deals, not just with autism, but social anxiety as well.
It sounds like very much the two are connected. So if we could automate our savings and use those kinds of functionalities that can help to reduce some of the anxiety, then that’s what you’re saying.
Exactly. A hundred percent. Also a lot of individuals with autism have alternative forms of communication. They don’t like to talk on the phone. How I talk when I’m talking about money is different than most other subjects. I can speak a lot better. It’s one of, if not my favourite thing to talk about.
I really find that having a bank where you don’t need to go in person, it’s so much easier having a good online bank account. Just having one that’s ease of use because I find we’ll get frustrated and want to give up and the last thing we want to do is the stop before we even really get started.
One other question Andrew, and this came up in my community recently, was what happens if you’ve got teenage children or children in their twenties and you’re trying to encourage them to be independent with their finances, but they are getting into difficulties with overspending because of anxiety and fear and things that can trigger people into actually overspending.
Is there anything, in addition to what you’ve already mentioned that would help people that are in that age range, where parents are trying to release a little bit of responsibility, but also there’s a bit of fear there about overspending?
I don’t think parents release enough responsibility in my experience. I feel like they left a little responsibility once and then that was it. Also you have to do it from an angle of not shaming or embarrassing when the decision was made.
Many times, especially if the individual just went through a really tough time, they may not even remember what they said, why they did it. They’re a completely different person when they come down from that. So I think it’s really important to keep it consistent.
For example, instead of, why aren’t you following your budget every month, (because nobody does) you say, well you spent this much on food you usually spend this much. Why was that? Maybe instead of buying six energy drinks in the morning, you can buy four. Just something that’s very small, easy to do, repeatable.
I find many parents essentially give up too easily. Any 18 year old likes to spend money on new things and buy new things. That’s also the other part too, is to take a step back and figure out what’s autism and what isn’t. The tips should be good for everyone. But I find not teaching the individual, not taking their power away, not letting them spend is not the solution, even if I’m not positive what the exact solution is.
I can always imagine it’s like a kite, isn’t it like you want to release the string on the kite to give them that independence and responsibility and sense of worthiness around money. But at the same time encourage them to have that control, automating their savings and some of the things that you’ve talked about today, Andrew.
Finally, some of the people who listen to my podcast are financial planners themselves, or financial advisors. We teach a financial coaching training program and deliver that internationally. We talk a lot about emotions and behaviours and beliefs and how we should really focus on those things first, before we look at our behaviours and our actions.
For any financial advisors reading this Andrew, and they have clients that are on the spectrum, what could we do as a financial services profession? How could we come together collectively to support people more than what we’re doing at the moment, because you’re really pioneering this over in the US.
Well, thank you. I’ll forgive you again – that was slightly open-ended.
One of the things that I really think we can do is realize everything that we’ve said: that individuals with autism exist. Treating them, just honestly, as a human being.
A big related topic is very similar to how women are often left out of the financial conversations. So there’s the husband and wife, the husband’s older, and the male financial advisor is talking to the guy, leaving the woman out of the conversation.
I find we do that a lot, especially when it comes to somebody with autism. Somebody will say, “Oh, and I have autism”. That means nothing to me. Like you said, it’s such a big spectrum. Somebody with autism, just the range of what they’re capable of, what they’re good at, what they might need is as unique as any individual.
I think to really ask, well, tell me about this person. If somebody says they have autism, I don’t think they usually elaborate more beyond that. What are they good at? What do they like to do? How can you foster that?
Almost everyone with autism has an interest that they’re obsessed with. Mine happens to be money, but the more that that could be utilized in working with somebody the better. Whether it’s printing cheques with a picture of penguins, if the person likes penguins (not that anyone writes checks anymore!)
I love that. Aligning their passion, their superpowers, if you like, with money, because we do know that people who generally are on the autistic spectrum do have fascinations and they’re incredibly intelligent people.
I actually grew up with a lot of young adults with disabilities. We were always surrounded with people on the spectrum and with disabilities. So I grew up being exposed to people with all sorts of superpowers.
I love how you’ve just shared that from a financial planning perspective. Really think about harnessing what they love and what they’re interested in and how we can link that to their financial planning work or the work that we’re trying to help them with.
Thank you so much. That was really, really valuable, Andrew. I think really what that demonstrates to me is that all of the tips that you’ve shared today are relevant to all of us. It’s just being aware that if you are on the spectrum, there will be certain things that will aid you and support you in reducing some of the anxiety and helping you to get more control systems and processes and things in place to ultimately aid that financial relationship.
One of my clients, Karen has just commented on this live and she said “That is great for hyper-focus”. Can you define that for us Andrew?
Like an obsession. The way I like to think about it is I can’t write well, I can’t write to save my life. It would take me forever to try to do a writing task, but I could do a math task in a fraction of what it might take somebody else.
Especially with autism, even though it’s good strategy for everyone, is to really focus on doing more of what you’re good at and to not try so much to focus on what you’re not good at. I think that’s one of the things we have to un-learn from school where they teach you a little bit of everything.
I think it’s really important to know that’s okay if you don’t know geometry. Focus on what you’re really good at instead. I think that’s even more important for individuals with autism.
Mark has shared as we’re speaking “start searching for the different ability, not the disability”. I think that’s a great way to look at it.
I’ve often wondered myself about the possibility of being on the spectrum.
I feel pretty strongly about this because the spectrum, it’s not really one thing. People say they have either anxiety and autism, or autism and ADHD. I think everyone with autism has both those things and lots of other things.
It’s the combination of them that really creates someone on the spectrum. The example I like to give is nobody says they’re just a little bit pregnant because they have swollen ankles. That might be a symptom of being pregnant and that’s not bad. But I would say that most of the people who will tell you they are on the spectrum themselves really prefer, it almost feels a little invalidating.
I know you are not trying to be mean in any way, shape or form. We appreciate it, but that’s definitely somewhere where I feel passionately is I think we all have traits of other human beings, I think is probably a better way to put it.
Thank you for challenging me on that actually, because that really resonates. Maybe that’s the empath in me that I just want to feel connected and want to be able to support people because of that empathic quality, because I feel people’s emotions very highly.
So thank you for challenging me on that. That’s really interesting.
Andrew, if anybody would like to connect with you to find out more about your work and your research, what would be the best way for them to reach out and to connect with you?
I have a website planningacrossthespectrum.com. I have a Facebook and LinkedIn page where I post. I don’t think I have as many people as you Catherine, but working on it!
I like to share very consistently good content on my social media and my website, we try to do just a monthly newsletter, nothing too crazy. My email is firstname.lastname@example.org, andyou can find that on my website as well.
Great. We’ll pop some links to those in the show notes of the podcast that will be going out in a couple of weeks time.
I actually subscribed to your newsletter and received that this week and really, really enjoyed reading some of the information that was in newsletter. I would highly recommend that everybody goes and subscribes to Andrew’s newsletter.
Thank you so, so much for your time today, Andrew, it’s been a pleasure to interview you.
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