Chris Quickfall, CEO and founder of the neurodiversity assessment and training provider Cognassist

The lack of neurodiverse talent in the workplace is partly attributable to insufficient support from employers. Over 35% of apprentices dropped out of their programmes in 2020/21, according to government research, and those with identified learning difficulties and disabilities (LDD) are more likely to drop out than others.

It is estimated that 15% of people are neurologically different from the rest of the population. These differences include autistic spectrum disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), dyslexia and dyspraxia. But it is well documented that the difference in perspective they offer can bring huge benefits to the firm, so going the extra mile to accommodate their needs is in the interests of the practice and the individual alike.

Not every person with a learning difference has received a diagnosis or is aware of their learning need

Holistic approach

With accountancy often being a high-pressured, dynamic environment, neurodiverse apprentices in the profession can often require even more help to reach their full potential.

It is important to think holistically when creating an inclusive environment – from the recruitment process to the day-to-day activities in the office. For example, when looking to attract neurodiverse talent, the recruitment process needs to be accessible. This could be in the types of assessments offered (for example, game-based), allowing applicants to use voice-to-text on the application platform, or offering the option to change formatting on application resources.

Additionally, through the use of cognitive assessments early on in the onboarding process, junior accountants can better understand how they think and learn best as individuals. This, in turn, can boost their self-confidence and productivity. Ideally, managers can also use this information to distribute suitable tasks and organise teams so that areas of strength are balanced.

Often, those with learning needs can also have lower self-esteem and issues with their confidence, and this should be taken into consideration with potential and current trainees. For example, some people with ADHD can also have rejection-sensitive dysphoria (RSD), where an individual may be extremely sensitive to perceived rejection. Therefore, the way in which constructive criticism is communicated is crucial, balancing feedback with praise and using language that focuses on work rather than personal issues.

Including everyone

Not every person with a learning difference has received a diagnosis or is aware of their learning need. This presents a case for firm-wide assessments. By encouraging all juniors and more established employees to take one, no one should feel alienated.

And every apprentice will be different, so a one-size-fits-all approach to reasonable adjustments in the workplace is unlikely to be effective. Where someone may struggle with keeping to routines, another may prefer to have stricter schedules. Embed discussions around what each trainee finds helpful into their reviews, and have regular conversations around what does and doesn’t work.

Encouraging junior accountants to experiment and be more flexible in how they work, especially in the early stages of their programme, could help them feel more supported and confident in their aptitude for their new role.

Neurodiverse trainees and junior accountants are no less capable than their neurotypical counterparts

Keep it simple

Senior accountants can support junior colleagues through careful consideration of how tasks and information are communicated. For example:

  • Keep emails and other internal communications concise and clear
  • Avoid overloading presentation decks and documents with unnecessary jargon
  • Use stronger contrasts between backgrounds and text, and increase font sizes
  • Send pre-reading information in advance of meetings so individuals can absorb information in a way that works best for them.

These simple adjustments can be extremely helpful for learning needs such as dyslexia and are likely to be appreciated by the wider workforce, too.

Overall, it is important to remember that neurodiverse trainees and junior accountants are no less capable than their neurotypical counterparts. Having a learning need is not an indication of one’s success and should not be a barrier to becoming a professional accountant; rather, there are strengths and a diversity of experience that can greatly enrich the work and learning environment.

The responsibility lies with accounting firms and training providers to encourage all trainees and employees to perform to the best of their abilities, by providing a sensitive environment.

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