Understanding Neurodiversity Improves Planning for All

Instead of “firing” difficult clients, try improving how you communicate with them.

By Elizabeth Wolleben Yoder

Neurodiversity is a term created to include the varieties of neuro anatomical differences in humans that don’t necessarily dictate disability. Some autistic advocates, among others, have used the term to be more comprehensive than disability and deficit-based terminology.

Unfortunately, the media does not do much to enlighten readers on the vast spectrum of people who are neurodiverse and what they are capable of achieving. When it comes to the workplace, most articles on neurodiverse people focus on those who are unemployed or underemployed. They also focus on those likely to be receiving social services or Social Security payments.

Some successfully employed neurodiverse individuals have experienced that side of life. However, many have not. Their autism, ADHD, dyslexia or other neurodiversity never kept them away from pursuing a meaningful career life. How many financial advisors know that any given client who comes to their door may have a successful career and also a recognized, but often hidden and private, disability or neurodiversity?

Yet most advisors have met some clients with the profile I will now describe.

Identifying Patterns

A successful professional in their field came to you knowing that they need help with one aspect of their planning. They can’t move forward with this aspect on their own. They may hold tightly advice from investment gurus or to a particular philosophy that they want you to buy into as well. They may assume they know more than they do in some areas of their planning, but are asking for your help and are open to conversation.

After working with them for a couple of months or years, you note that they are not getting their action items completed. You review them all again in a review meeting, and they agree that everything sounds good and appropriate. When they come back in for another review, none of their action items are completed. You are at a loss as to what their objectives actually are for your advisory relationship.

These kinds of frustrating client interactions could indicate 1. nothing special about the client, or 2. the client may need additional support in following through with the tasks as outlined in your advisory meetings.

This client may be neurodivergent, but they may not be. In fact, we see some of the same patterns in neurodivergents that we find in some of our most difficult clients who do not fall into the category:

• They know what they are talking about in the most important areas of their life.
• They have blind spots in what they don’t understand.
• They have a hard time following through with tasks that are long or multiprocessed.
• They get overwhelmed by all of the information you try to share with them. They may forget everything or simply shut down once the meeting is over.

The solutions to your advisory challenges look the same whether your client has a recognized neurodiversity or not. The solution is not to “fire” the noncompliant client. Rather, it is to alter your process so that you can get what you are trying to communicate across to your client in a way they can process it and move forward productively.

Next Steps

Here are ways on how to better communicate:

1. Change the way you meet with your clients.

Sometimes meeting face to face is not the best fit for your clients. An in-person meeting can be overly stimulating. The combination of watching for communication cues — and listening to the meaning of challenging concepts in an office environment that may be unfamiliar with colors, lights and sounds that are uncontrollable to an individual with sensory processing sensitivities or challenges — may just be too much.

Talk to your clients about what environments they prefer to have their meetings. Do they feel comfortable with a video call, a phone call or a meeting where they work or live as opposed to your office? Do they respond better in email correspondence or on the phone? Try your best to approach them where they feel most comfortable. It may help them be more able to finish difficult or lingering tasks.

2. Start with a smaller agenda.

If there is little action on an action items list, prioritize tasks and only discuss the most important. Start slow and build momentum, or start to recognize the boundaries of your client’s pacing through your process. Break up complicated tasks by next steps that can be managed simply by the client.

Whenever possible, be part of a joint meeting or call to introduce the client to new professionals like accountants or lawyers so you don’t have to rely on the client making the initial call. Get involved to the extent that makes it clear you are supporting the process, but welcome the client’s feedback if the new professional is not the right fit.

3. Ask your client what has worked for them in the past.

Get to know what tools the client has used to move through challenging conversations or concepts. They’ll be more likely to succeed if you have them design their own way out of their stuck position rather than if you dictate a process they are unfamiliar with or have tried unsuccessfully before.

Many individuals with neurodiversities had negative experiences during early education because of what was expected of them. They may have compared themselves to their peers who understood social cues and managed executive functioning (organizing, planning and prioritizing) without any struggle. Continuing to repeat tasks without offering more detailed support can remind them of those past learning experiences. Expecting them to follow your process can do the same. Asking them in as many specifics as possible to detail the best ways they can pursue their goals can give you greater insight into how they
are breaking the process down and the possible steps forward that you can support.

Additional Reading: New FPA Group Wants to Improve Profession for Those with Neurological Differences

I am not a psychologist and I do not treat my clients with therapy practices. But I do listen to them explain what they think would be helpful in my process rather than assume I know the best path forward for them. Approaching the challenge from a place of curiosity versus judgment may help the client get beyond feelings of being stuck.

“Approaching the challenge from a place of curiosity versus judgment may help the client get beyond feelings of being stuck.”

Stay curious. Don’t assume noncompliance. Another way to say this is always assume competence. When a client is not following through, ask what additional support you can offer. Engage with supportive principles and your client will let you know what they believe could work for them.

Elizabeth Wolleben Yoder, CFP, is the director of financial planning at Planning Across the Spectrum. She works with neurodivergent individuals and their families to put clear next steps in place to help them build their own self-direction and financial freedom. This includes evaluating what government benefits to retain as individuals become more financially independent.

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