Understanding the financial wellbeing of autistic adults

Money matters in people’s lives. It helps to meet our basic needs, like food, clothing and shelter. It also allows us to live the lives we want.

When people talk about ‘financial wellbeing’, they mean how much you feel in control of your day-to-day finances and how much freedom you have to make choices to enjoy life.

" Participants described ‘a lot of anxiety’ and ‘meltdowns’ at work until people either ‘got fired’ or ‘had to walk away'."

Researchers have long identified financial wellbeing impacts quality of  life. But we still know very little about financial wellbeing in certain segments of the community.

According to the World Health Organization, about one in 100 children have autism. Despite this we know virtually nothing about the financial wellbeing of autistic people. So we conducted the world’s first study to help understand the financial wellbeing of autistic adults.

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The research – funded  by ANZ and the Australian Cooperative Research Centre for Living with Autism (Autism CRC) – was recently published in Autism: the international journal of research and practice.

Making ends meet

In our first study, we surveyed 191 autistic adults and found almost half (46 per cent) felt it was hard to make ends meet. In contrast, only 32 per cent of the general Australian population felt this way.

When we looked at their financial situations more closely, we found a similar proportion of autistic adults (just under half) revealed their annual income was less than $25,000, with many being below the poverty line.

Having such low income constrains people’s ability to meet basic expenses and to save for the future. We wanted to identify the socioeconomic factors influencing autistic people’s financial wellbeing and what we found closely aligned with ANZ’s findings in the 2021 Financial Wellbeing Survey.

Autistic people’s sense of financial wellbeing was related to their income levels and how they use that income. The more people save and the less they had to borrow for everyday expenses, the greater their financial wellbeing.

We also found people with anxiety or depression symptoms had lower financial wellbeing. While this is not surprising, we don’t know whether it’s poor mental health causing lower financial wellbeing, or whether low financial wellbeing is causing the mental health issues. It might be a bit of both.

Walking away

To capture autistic adults’ lived financial experiences, we interviewed 21 of the 191 autistic adults in our second study.

We intentionally spoke with people who had told us previously they felt ‘financially well’ or ‘financially unwell’ so we could hear a range of opinions. In the low financial wellbeing group, many felt good financial wellbeing was not possible for them.

They often did not have stable income to cover day-to-day expenses, which is paramount for good financial wellbeing. Despite ‘wanting to be able to work’, they repeatedly reported ‘struggling to hold down a job.’

The reasons included non-supportive environments, casual employment and being in the wrong kind of industries.

Mental health factors were continuously brought up by our autistic interviewees. Participants described anxiety and ‘meltdowns’ at work until people either ‘got fired’ or ‘had to walk away.’

Consequently, subjects had to make choices to protect their mental health, including passing up promotions or working freelance, which reduced earning capacity. Despite these challenges, autistic people still worked hard to budget and save when they could.

While some described instances of ‘impulse buying,’ most respondents had a conservative approach to money. They reported being ‘more of a saver than a spender’ and ‘hating that feeling of not having money.’

This preference to save, not spend, carried to their use of credit. Many were ‘terrified of debt and a credit card you can’t pay off at the end of the month.’

A way forward

Our findings suggest the most effective way to improve the financial wellbeing of autistic people would be to raise their income.

Two potential ways of doing this is to increase government allowances and benefits for unemployed autistic people and to improve autistic people’s participation in the workforce.

It is encouraging to see corporations such as DXC Technology, SAP, JP Morgan, Deutsche Bank and ANZ partnering with universities and autism support organisations to implement autism-specific employment programs focusing on hiring and supporting autistic employees.

To improve the lives of more autistic people, we need similar programs in other industries to cater for the diverse needs, skills and preferences of autistic people.

Empowering all people to live the lives they want will create a stronger community for everyone.

Dr Ru Ying Cai is an academic at Autism Spectrum Australia (Aspect), La Trobe University, Gabrielle Hall is an academic at University of Technology, Sydney and Professor Elizabeth Pellicano is an academic at University College London.

The views and opinions expressed in this communication are those of the author and may not necessarily state or reflect those of ANZ.

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