When we talk about autism in the insurance industry, most of the time we talk in terms of the “child.” The thing about children with autism, though, is that eventually they turn into adults with autism. I would know — I am one of them.
Insurance companies tend to have someone on their team who works in special care planning, which in itself isn’t a bad thing, but that person is there to serve the parents and caretakers of children or adult dependents with disabilities. They often severely lack education on options specific to the adults in those categories who wish to have power over their own finances.
Although there are many individuals with disabilities who will need care and support from their care teams on financial decisions and more, there is a growing neurodiversity movement that aims to include their community as part of the diversity inclusion initiatives.
Neurodiversity in itself is an entirely new way to consider what we used to look at as deficits within a disability. Also worth noting is that although your training has probably taught you to use person-first language (for example, “a person with autism”), 90% of those surveyed said they preferred the term “autistic” to describe themselves. That is because the autism is a part of us, and we can’t separate ourselves from it.
Neurodiversity is often linked only to those with autism spectrum disorder, which is true. All individuals with ASD are neurodiverse, but not all who are neurodiverse are on the spectrum. Neurodiversity encompasses several neurodevelopmental disorders, including (but not limited to):
» Autism spectrum disorder.
» Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
Conditions that fall under the neurodiversity label aren’t abnormal, but are natural variations of the human brain. The term neurodiversity helps us frame challenges as differences instead of deficits.
The neurodiversity movement promotes that the goal shouldn’t be to cure differences, but rather embrace them and reduce the stigma behind them. It emphasizes strengths in differences, and it promotes the idea that people under that umbrella should be in charge of their own lives — including but not limited to finances.
Given that nearly 1 in 8 people in the U.S. fall under the list of conditions that would identify them as neurodivergent, the chance is fairly strong that you have clients who fit under that umbrella. There are several things that are important to consider for these clients and things that you can do to help make them not only more comfortable but also thrive while working with you.
Some things that are often spoken of but not always addressed are sensory processing issues. Think about this for a second: Have you ever worked in or are you currently working in an office that uses bright fluorescent lights? It’s pretty uncomfortable.
For individuals like myself, it can go beyond discomfort. It can be completely unbearable and cause physical and emotional pain. Think of the way you feel when you hear nails across a chalkboard — now think of hearing that for the entire duration you are forced to sit under that light. I accommodate this in my own life by putting light-filtering shades on fluorescent lights in my office, or wearing tinted glasses or a ball cap.
Let’s say I proposed getting rid of all overhead lighting in my building. Do you think everyone would embrace this? Of course not. These accommodations make me comfortable, while not disturbing anyone else. The same principle can be applied to our financial planning and the environment we do it in. These are simple accommodations we can make so that someone can feel significantly more comfortable. When in doubt — ask.
Something else that is not commonly addressed when talking about neurodiverse adults (ironically) is communication. Sometimes, navigating communication with a neurodivergent individual can seem odd. For example — some of my clients really hate talking on the phone. It gives them stress and anxiety. They prefer to communicate via email or text chat. Is that typical for the industry? Absolutely not. To someone uneducated, it would likely look like they’re just avoiding a sales call. This isn’t the case at all. Be direct. Ask your client how they wish to be contacted and how they are comfortable receiving communications.
Sticking with communication — language is another thing that is often overlooked. The English language creates room for lots of nuances and, in sales, we like to dance around an actual pitch as a tool so that we don’t immediately turn someone off because they think we are trying to sell them something.
This does not work with neurodivergent clients. Ambiguity and large open-ended questions only cause confusion and anxiety. Typical questions in a fact-finding process (such as “Where do you see yourself in five years?”) can potentially confuse the neurodiverse individual and cause them to pause and feel anxious and frustrated. Be direct and break questions down into smaller parts (“Do you see yourself being interested in owning a home?”).
A major plus to this is that we neurodivergent people tend to be very open and very honest in sharing the information that is asked of us. That being said, we do tend to get stuck on details. Reel your client back in by sticking to asking those small questions without potential for a huge, open response and you will get everything you need.
Your client will likely have lots of questions, and several you may think aren’t relevant. There is a phrase we often use in the community — “assume competence.” Assume that your client means well and they are likely just trying to understand every facet of what they are taking on, while trusting you as the expert.
How Neurodiversity Impacts Life Insurance
Let’s move on to the specifics in your planning. What is there for a neurodiverse person to consider that is different from a neurotypical person when it comes to life insurance? In itself, not a whole lot! These conditions alone are not precursors to anything that would trigger an actuary. That being said, there are underlying facts often associated with neurodiverse conditions that must be considered.
Individuals with autism are more likely to be depressed, suicidal and anxious. There are several medical conditions that are commonly comorbid with autism that would lead to different types of medications and testing history. Life insurance applications often ask whether the client is on any government benefits, including SSI/Medicaid or Social Security Disability. Many insurance companies have a qualifier in which you are not able to get life insurance — or the coverage is much more difficult to obtain — if you are on disability insurance.
It is also important to know that if you run into a client who is on disability, that you inquire about existing policies and disability riders. I often have found that individuals are eligible to have their policies paid for with waivers of premiums and those policies were sold so long ago the client never realized that was an available option for them.
When I myself was underwritten for my individual disability insurance, I fully disclosed my autism and I was approved at the rating expected. The only limitation for me was an existing condition limitation for not being able to work due to autism. These existing limitations are extremely common in disability insurance and something I was expecting.
When it comes to life insurance, it can be a little trickier. Even with conditions that fall under the neurodiversity umbrella alone, a client will likely receive a top rating, as long as the client isn’t receiving disability benefits, is working, and has no other conditions or outlying medications.
Comorbid conditions, however, are another issue, and each case will need to be treated individually. The takeaway from this, though, should be that neurodiversity alone is not enough to disqualify someone, nor for them to receive poor ratings.
Let’s take another look at communication issues. Most insurance companies have phone interview processes now. However, the phone might not be the preferred or potentially even possible method of communication for many neurodiverse individuals. Do not make assumptions that they have a preferred method — just ask.
Break down the individual steps of what is going to happen, with the most exact timeline you can give. Prepare them for the questions they will be asked. Explain to them what the end goal is. Be clear and concise. When possible, try to use something visual such as a graph, a visual timeline or a chart. Doesn’t this sound like the way that everyone wishes they were communicated with?
At the end of the day, working with someone who is neurodiverse may seem like it is going to take lots of extra effort on your part. The thing is though, it all comes back to the same thing — when in doubt — be clear. Be direct. Ask what your client needs, and keep striving to be the best possible advisor for them that you can be.