Date posted: 15/06/2022 12 min read

Why accounting may suit the neurodiverse

Thinking different is encouraged in business, so is your organisation missing the strengths of neurodiverse talent?

In Brief

  • Many accounting firms are waking up to the challenges facing neurodiverse employees and the benefits in broadening hiring pool.
  • Adele Murray CA and Jess Kumar CA, both diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder, share their experiences and challenges as neurodiverse accountants.
  • Accounting as a profession is well suited to people with autism, according to Chris Turner, a former chartered accountant and founder of Neuro Advantage.

By Rachel Worsley

On paper, Adele Murray CA appears like any other successful accountant. A senior finance officer with the Department of State Development, Infrastructure, Local Government and Planning, she prepares accruals in accordance with accounting standards and contributes towards end-of-year financial statements to the Queensland Audit Office. She also supports CA ANZ as an exam marker and session facilitator and is on the Young Chartered Accountants (YCA) panel in Queensland.

But in 2019, age 32, Murray received a diagnosis that changed her outlook. She was told she had Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), a condition characterised by inattention, impulsivity and excessive levels of hyperactivity.

“I knew something was going on but I didn’t know what it was,” Murray says. “I suspected I was on the autism spectrum as I don’t always pick up on sarcasm and jokes. As it turns out, having a working memory deficit can translate to having some difficulties in comprehending verbal communication.”

Her career path before her diagnosis wasn’t all smooth. She’d hit issues completing her CA qualification. “I was in one of the Big Four firms and around all these smart people, and unfortunately I failed three modules in a row,” she says. “I was putting in intelligent effort, but for a complex set of reasons I was not getting over the line.

“One reason was my internalised fear of failure, but also the neurological and educational issues that I didn’t realise I had.”

Facing a quarter-life crisis, Murray took a break and travelled to Hungary where, spurred by her passion for classical music, she studied music education for two years. She felt the experience improved her memory and coordination.

Back in Brisbane she decided to give her CA designation one last crack and found herself passing all five modules in succession. As she was finishing her final CA subject in 2017, Murray took on a graduate diploma of education. Juggling the two led to burnout and, eventually, the ADHD diagnosis. “I felt validated,” she says of her diagnosis. “There was excitement and relief. I now had a name for this thing and had before me a journey of learning and understanding.”

“I felt validated. I now had a name for this thing and had before me a journey of learning and understanding.”
Adele Murray CA

What is neurodiversity?

There are more than 800,000 people affected by ADHD in Australia, according to a 2019 Deloitte Access Economics report. ADHD New Zealand estimates the number in New Zealand at about 280,000. While boys are more likely to be diagnosed with the neurodevelopmental condition, it’s now thought that ADHD affects males and females equally.

ADHD is often seen as a medical issue to be treated, but there is a push for it to be included under the heading of “neurodiversity”. The term, coined by Australian sociologist Judy Singer in 1998, describes neurological differences such as ADHD, autism spectrum and dyslexia as being just part of the infinite variability found within the human population.

The Workplace Neurodiversity: Power of Difference report by The Institute of Leadership and Management in the UK says that ADHD confers strengths such as intense energy, creative problem-solving, perseverance and working under pressure – traits that are familiar to Murray.

“ADHD helps me understand why I can pop into different areas and I can switch tasks quite quickly,” she says. “I’m quite good in a crisis. If there’s something going on, then I remain quite calm.”

But along with their strengths, those with ADHD need some accommodations to focus and work to the best of their abilities.

Murray explains that she wears headphones at work to block out noise, has permission to work from home, has tasks delegated to her in writing and sets aside time for meaningful catch-ups with colleagues.

She credits her chief financial officer for supporting her and enabling her to thrive.

“I have a couple of projects that I’m working on for our CFO that give me an outlet for my interest areas such as training and development and communication,” she says.

“Rockhopper [Origami]” by Sarah Morris, based on the crease pattern “Penguin” by Noboru Miyajima.Picture: “Rockhopper [Origami]” by Sarah Morris, based on the crease
pattern “Penguin” by Noboru Miyajima

Supportive workplaces aid success

Jess Kumar CA, chair of CA ANZ’s Emerging Leaders Group (Auckland), was recently diagnosed with ADHD – coincidentally at age 32, like Murray – and being on the autism spectrum (ASD). In Australia, autism is diagnosed in about 1 in 150 people; in New Zealand, it’s an estimated 1 in 100 people, according to government figures.

Autism is a spectrum and presents in many ways but is characterised by difficulty in social interaction and by restricted or repetitive patterns of thought and behaviour. People with autism also show strengths with intense hyperfocus, attention to detail, and analytical and critical thinking, according to the Workplace Neurodiversity: Power of Difference report.

Kumar says, in hindsight, her career choices have been influenced by these strengths in her neurodiversity.

“All of my roles have been advisory-based or business partnering roles,” she says. “A lot of it has been going in and starting things from new. It’s very different from what people imagine to be a traditional accounting role.”

Yet while there is growing understanding of ADHD, Kumar says autism remains “quite stigmatised because people don’t understand the whole spectrum”.

“My working style is hyperfocus and then lose interest very quickly. But in terms of the ASD [autism] traits, I’m asking, ‘How do we look at things from end to end?’ It’s like looking at the big picture and finding the patterns.”

“In terms of the ASD traits, I’m asking, ‘How do we look at things from end to end?’ It’s like looking at the big picture and finding the patterns.”
Jess Kumar CA

Sometimes she takes a sketchbook into meetings and draws to help her focus. Sensitivity to noise can mean she also needs to take regular breaks away from the office environment to recharge.

Autism in accounting

Accounting as a profession is well suited to people with autism, according to Chris Turner, a former chartered accountant and founder of Neuro Advantage, a Melbourne-based consultancy and coaching service that assists employers in hiring and supporting neurodiverse staff.

“There’s plenty of scope for developing specific knowledge around tax legislation or accounting standards which is quite rules-based,” he explains. “Those tendencies towards attention to detail can be helpful for them.”

However, Turner believes current hiring processes often deter people with autism from applying for jobs. He points to the assessment centre recruitment process as an example.

“If you have someone who is autistic trying to work their way around reading the room and work their way around how to introduce their own thoughts and opinions, then suddenly time’s up and they haven’t actually said anything and the assessor’s marking them down,” he says.

“It’s not because they can’t or they don’t have great ideas, it’s just the situation is often quite complex and fast-paced.”

The unemployment figures clearly illustrate the problem. ABS statistics reveal that in Australia in 2015, the unemployment rate for people with autism was 31.6%, more than three times the rate for people with disability (10%) and almost six times the rate of people without disability (5.3%). In New Zealand in 2017, Altogether Autism estimated that less than 20% of adults with high-functioning autism (formerly called Aspergers syndrome) were in full-time employment.

Turner believes reasonable adjustments for candidates during the hiring process could assist people with autism show more of their true potential and help them land jobs.

“If it’s video interviews, you could instead do them over the phone,” he says. “And you can send those interview questions in advance so people have time to consider and think about what they’ve been asked.”

Neurodiversity-friendly hiring programs

Many accounting firms are waking up to the challenges facing the autism community and the benefits in broadening hiring pools. In 2021, EY Australia launched its “Switched On” program, partnering with the University of Sydney’s Brain and Mind Centre to hire 12 autistic participants across three intakes of 12-week internships.

The Australian cohort ranged from recent high-school leavers to more experienced workers who were hired into positions across accounting operations, strategy and transactions and financial services technology consulting.

Elisa Colak, EY Oceania head of talent, says the program is successful partly due to its acknowledgement of the anxieties experienced by participants and managing those anxieties through open communication lines.

“It’s to make sure they have someone to step through everything. From the minute they arrive through to navigating those first few days, it’s about where the bathrooms and kitchens are, what to wear and how do I turn up at a meeting if I’m not sure what to do.”

Two-thirds of participants were offered ongoing employment after the internship and Colak says the program has encouraged more neurodivergent people and family members within EY to speak up about their own experiences.

“We’ve had leaders email me to say, ‘We’re so thankful that you have a program where we’re working hard with our neurodiverse people, because my … family member is autistic, and now I know there are workplaces like EY where they’ll be able to work and be quite successful’,” she says.

EY in the US now has six Neuro-Diverse Centers of Excellence where people with autism, ADHD and dyslexia are recruited for their skills. Their managers are specifically trained to accommodate neurodivergent people at work.

Deloitte Australia established its neurodiversity initiative in 2018. Sponsored by a senior Deloitte partner, it has a mentoring program and a working group that pursues neurodiverse recruitment.

“Embracing neurodiversity gives us thought processes that we may otherwise miss, thereby strengthening our workforce,” says Pip Dexter, lead partner for Deloitte Human Capital in Sydney.

The firm has piloted an internship program through its Perth office in partnership with the Autism Academy for Software Quality Assurance and the Australian Computer Society Foundation. It intends hiring 10 neurodivergent software engineers in the coming months.

Dexter says neurodiverse individuals are an untapped pool of talent, particularly for areas with shortfalls such as cybersecurity. She adds that Deloitte adjusted its hiring pathways to ensure no neurodivergent candidate is excluded.

“We ask candidates if there are any adjustments they may need, and we work with them and hiring managers to make necessary adjustments, such as the early provision of interview questions,” she says.

Despite programs such as these, Adele Murray believes there remains a lack of understanding in many workplaces about neurodiversity.

“I was once asked, ‘Are you capable of working at your prescribed job level?’ I have also been offered a reduction in hours or a block of extended leave,” she says.

But now Murray has her diagnosis, she feels better equipped for the future.

“While undiagnosed, ADHD slowed my career progression,” she says. “I now have the knowledge and power to start playing to my strengths. I will now use my strengths and interests to guide the career decisions that I make, going forward.”

Why EY scrapped initial face-to-face interviews

Recognising the benefits in hiring neurodiverse workers, in 2016 global accounting firm Ernst & Young (EY) launched a neurodiversity program, setting up six Neurodiversity Centers of Excellence across the US.

According to its website, the goal was to create a culture of inclusion, leverage untapped talent to meet demand for employees and specific types of work and impact society in a positive way.

EY revamped its hiring processes to prevent candidates from being automatically rejected for traits that have no impact on their job performance. The process typically begins with phone calls or virtual meetings with candidates, which avoids initial face-to-face interviews that can be challenging for some neurodiverse people. Applicants are then put through problem-solving challenges which test aptitude, creativity and teamwork.

Once hired, neurodiverse employees go through a customised onboarding process and are given a job coach and trained office buddies for ongoing support. These Centers of Excellence now operate in the UK, Canada, India, Poland and Spain.

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