For adults with autism like Bruce Petherick, financial independence can feel elusive. “I would never get involved in the bank without somebody else beside me,” says Mr. Petherick, 59, an advocate with Autism Canada where he runs family support programs. “My wife is my support person. I never make a decision that involves investments, bank details, any of that stuff without her being there.”
His hurdles stem from what he calls the “unwritten social rules” of banking – what information to share and withhold, how to know if you’re being misled and how to break down technical language into useful information.
While few find banking straightforward, for adults with autism, accessibility barriers relating to how information is communicated and displayed, can keep them from participating in banking in meaningful ways and present significant financial risks.
“It’s part of a bigger struggle with planning and organizational skills that sometimes come along with being autistic or neurodiverse,” says Becca Lory Hector, director of training at the Asperger/Autism Network.
“Issues with budgeting are really a big deal in our community,” she says. “Folks that are different definitely have a bigger struggle dealing with banking. It’s made for a certain kind of person because it’s designed with sameness in mind.”
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For Tarver, a student at George Brown College and a prelicensed autism therapy specialist, accessibility issues can cross over into the territory of exploitative behaviour when gone unchecked.
“If you had a blind population and all of your contracts were written and nobody provided translation or Braille, it wouldn’t be a surprise if people sign things without knowing what’s there,” says Tarver, who uses only one name. “We’d all say, ‘This is outrageous. How can you do it?’ ”
Adults on the autism spectrum may present in different ways. “We all have our different strengths and challenges,” says Mr. Petherick. “But it’s the social process that we don’t understand, and that we need support with.
Autism is defined by challenges with social communication and sensory issues according to Terri Hewitt, psychologist and chief executive at Surrey Place, a Toronto non-profit supporting people with developmental disabilities. Social communication differences might include difficulty reading non-verbal cues or engaging in conversations with peers while sensory issues include “aversion to loud noise or bright, fluorescent lighting,” she says.
The overwhelming physical environment of a bank branch can lead adults with autism to avoid engaging in essential conversations about the state of their finances.
“The bank can be incredibly overwhelming for autistic people. If they have sensory overload, they may not be processing everything that’s happening,” says Shira Karpel, director of behavioural services at Kayla’s Children’s Centre, which provides therapeutic programs for kids with developmental disabilities.
“They may well agree or accept something just to end a social interaction,” says Ms. Hewitt.
Avoiding the social components of banking is notably risky when it comes to resolving problems with credit debt.
“If you’re getting into credit issues, you need to talk to someone and that person needs to take into account that you may not completely understand everything right away,” Ms. Hewitt says. “There’s really good value in having training so that front-line staff understand what the issues are.”
For adults on the autism spectrum, accessible banking starts with flexible communication. “Autistic people are really happy with blunt statements – this is the percentage, this is the penalty – rather than flowery language,” says Mr. Petherick. “Inclusion training would allow the person in the bank to recognize I need a different way of explaining something. It’s about breaking down the assumptions that a neurotypical adult is supposed to have.”
To mitigate the social challenges, adults with autism often rely on a friend or family member to do banking with them, but they don’t always need them acting as a power of attorney. This informal support is often met with scrutiny from banking personnel.
“Banks tend to emphasize the one-on-one,” says Mr. Petherick. “Whereas, if you’re talking to an autistic person, there should always be encouragement for you to bring a support person – a friend, a colleague, a partner.”
For Tarver, new approaches to communication and training should complement inclusive design and improved technical supports. “We need universal design and configuration options so that we can even just read the information – visuals, dark modes, consistent formatting, sizing – it’s not that my eyesight is bad, it’s that my short-term memory is bad.”
Annie Harper, a cultural anthropologist at Yale University who studies the financial lives of marginalized groups, wants banks to incorporate supportive features that streamline banking for adults with mental and physical disabilities while being available to everyone.
Ms. Harper co-authored a report that outlines practical solutions to make banking more accessible for people with diverse needs, including customizable mobile banking notifications and options for self-imposed spending, something that’s possible with certain banks but far from universally available. She also recommends view-only access accounts, which enable users to share limited access with a designated third party and allow them to monitor or help with spending.
Ms. Hewitt already often recommends joint accounts to parents of autistic kids, who might take on their child’s credit debt. “Families agree with their child that if you’re going to receive money, let’s have a joint account so I can help you when it comes to managing it,” she says.
View-only accounts provide some of the same flexibility while offering more autonomy – a key consideration when supporting adults on the autism spectrum. They can also mitigate potential abuse arising from privileged access.
At banks like Toronto-Dominion and Bank of Montreal, accessibility resources already include training for staff on how best to work with customers who disclose a disability, although the definition runs broad. TD also offers a Minimum Account with no monthly fees for customers who are part of the federal government’s registered disability savings plan.
“Educating the staff and making sure there are certain requirements and accommodations for people with disabilities is the first thing,” says Ms. Karpel. But experts want to see more. “Training too often becomes an excuse – like, ‘Well we did the training, so, you know, the issue is solved,’ ” says Ms. Harper.
Apps such as MagnusCards have stepped in to provide accessibility features where banks lag behind, often working with banks to reach accessibility goals.
“We explain everything in visuals, graphics and audio to help people navigate each aspect of the banking experience using cards,” explains Nadia Hamilton, CEO of Magnusmode.
But Ms. Harper believes it’s the responsibility of banks to directly provide these features, not the apps. “Ultimately, you should just be able to get this service through your bank,” she says.
Banks really should be doing more, says Ms. Hector. “To make your product as accessible to as many people as possible – it’s just a good way to do business.”