‘Some people don’t like certain smells [or] certain colours, but a big issue is noise’, Timpson tells Insurance Times

It’s 8 o’clock on a Thursday and the insurance industry is hosting an event, now in full swing, at a grand hall in a new office in central London.

From an outsider view, the gathering looks like a scene out of television series Succession – attendees are suited and booted, the canapés are making the rounds, alcohol is flowing,and the buzz of chatter can be heard through the open windows.

For people with autism, however, networking is a whole different ball game. And in an industry where interpersonal skills are a key expectation of those who wish to succeed, there is an opportunity for firms to approach events inclusively and support talent differently.

Speaking exclusively to Insurance Times, Johnny Timpson, co-founder of the Group for Autism, Insurance and Neurodiversity (GAIN), says he believes people with autism would find attending insurance networking events “difficult”.

“Some people don’t like certain smells [or] certain colours, but a big issue is noise,” Timpson says.

He explains that background music, the sound of glasses and other people chatting can make it challenging to “focus on what people are saying”, which is a “big deal for neurodivergent people” – considering sensory overload can also be experienced by individuals with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

Timpson received a late diagnosis of autism at age 58 and, without the needed support, was put in a position of having to mask his condition.

Masking, according to resource directory InclusionHub, “refers to the practice of concealing or suppressing aspects of one’s neurodivergent traits or conditions in order to fit in with the norms of the workplace or society”.

Underneath the mask, however, Timpson says that he would “worry about going to events” in person.

One skill that he has had to “really work hard at plugging into” is “reading between the lines to try and engage with stuff that isn’t written”, such as company culture and office etiquette.

However, he doesn’t view his autism as a “disability”, rather as “just the way I’m wired”, he says.

Timpson acknowledges that neurodivergent individuals may have an alternative view of their own cognitive diversity and disability depending on their experience.

So, with this in mind, how can insurance firms improve support for autistic employees and accessibility to events?

Psychological safety

Timpson says that middle management is one sector that can make strides in the area of improving conditions for neurodivergent people within the industry.

However, he clarifies that for true diversity and inclusion to take hold, there needs to be a culture of “belonging” and sense of psychological safety created by everyone in a business – from the person on the front desk to the board.

In 2020, research from The Institute of Leadership and Management revealed that 25% out of 1,156 people would be uncomfortable employing or managing someone with autism.

And 60% of autistic people believed their workplace behaved in a way that excluded neurodivergent colleagues.

In one case study, published as part of this research, Send workshops and training service manager Reece Coker said: “Apart from being the right thing to do, neurodiversity encourages lateral thinking, a different perspective, a control on office politics and promotes a space where many personality types can flourish, not just the extroverts.”

An analysis by the Office for National Statistics (ONS), published later in February 2022, also found that the employment rates of autistic people to be significantly low at just 29%.

“If you’re running event for staff, do think about the acoustics of the venue that you’re in,” says Timpson.

“If it’s a big hall and there is lots of chatter, you might want to think of [the speaker] having something on the screen behind them where their speech is captured, so people can actually read what they’re saying.”

Timpson adds that taking this action can also help those with hearing loss, as supporting neurodiversity is like a “drop curve”– an implementation that benefited the target audience of wheelchair users, while also helping parents with pushchairs.

“If you start making simple changes for neurodivergent people, you start to benefit much wider audiences who may have other particular characteristics,” he says.

Reasonable adjustments

When supporting autistic colleagues to speak at events, Timpson highlights from his own experience that providing time for the individual to scope out the location and inside the building can be beneficial, as well as providing the opportunity to walk the stage and practice at the lectern.

In the general workplace, Timpson says “we are talking reasonable adjustments, but not anything that’s hugely expensive” and the misconception that an “autistic person is going to require a lot more support” relative to the rest of the team is “not actually the case”.

For example, the desk of an autistic individual can be put in a part of the office where “people around them are not eating food because the food smells, while equally the sound of people eating can be quite disconcerting to some people”.

Well-lit areas where there is low background noise can also help, as well as using pastel colours to decorate offices or computer desktops.

To boost the employment prospects of autistic people, the UK government launched a review in April 2023 – which is being led by Sir Robert Buckland KC MP. Recommendations will be reported to the Secretary of State in September 2023.