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Thriving with Autism: One CPA's Story

Tom IlandAccording to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), one in every 68 American children is diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). A newer government survey boosts the prevalence of this condition to one in 45 children. Though the frequency of autism remains debatable, it’s undeniably among the fastest-growing developmental disorders in the U.S., with diagnoses having increased 119.4% since 2000.

Now, pivot to the inevitability of Generation Z, post-millennial youths constituting 20% of the workforce by 2020. When you consider the staggering prevalence of autism in this particular age group and combine those occurrences with the even more daunting unemployment rate of people with autism, the implication for our economy’s future is alarming.

Enter: Tom Iland, who at 13 was diagnosed with autism. Affectionately called The Calculator by his junior high schoolmates, Tom discovered at a very young age that, despite certain shortcomings, he was a wiz with numbers. Among his many mathematical talents, he can – in no more than a second – provide the sum of a word by adding its letters’ corresponding numerical values:

If A=1, B=2…Z=26, then autism = 83.

Tom was also an unabashed Star Wars fanboy, so it seemed only logical to him that with his unique mathematical abilities, he could become George Lucas’s accountant. It was a dream that some mothers would have discouraged. Luckily, Tom’s mother was different. Rather than dissuade him, she helped him map out a plan to achieve his ambitious goal. He’d have to take certain courses, study for exams and amass experience interning in the field.

Ultimately, Tom exceled – but not without first reflecting on his limitations and developing a strategy to compensate for them. After securing an internship doing property tax for Disney, for example, he disclosed his disability within the first week on the job: he forewarned his manager he may ask the same question repeatedly until the answer finally stuck, and he requested written instructions for tasks, which he’d learned over time were easier for him to grasp than verbal directions.

The same level of self-awareness and planning was key when sitting for the CPA exam. “I clearly hadn’t done a single day of audit fieldwork,” Tom said, “so I went so far as to memorize the Standard Unqualified Audit Opinion word for word.”

Tom worked at Disney for three years and was promoted after the second year. He also earned his CPA. The story likely would have unfolded differently, however, had he not acknowledged how ASD uniquely affected him.

But the most extraordinary thing about Tom is not that he’s a licensed CPA thriving with autism; rather, it’s that he’s put a successful seven-year career in corporate accounting on the backburner to answer what he refers to as “a higher calling.”  His life’s work now involves building a bridge of understanding between those living with autism and their parents, their friends, their teachers and, above all, their potential employers. Tom’s all too familiar with the near-countless challenges people with autism face, not the least of which is the aforementioned unemployment rate for individuals with autism, estimated between 75-85%. In the rare cases in which people with autism are employed, they are far more likely to be underemployed than their non-spectrum counterparts. Tom wants to use his experiences to remedy that.

He recalls how his mother, an adjunct professor of special education and former president of the Los Angeles Autism Society, once had been approached by the Los Angeles Police Department to learn more about autism. She helped train thousands of officers, “but then she realized that people with autism need to know how to interact with the officers too.” He describes it as a two-way bridge. The same bridge should be built between business owners and people with autism. He acknowledges that many organizations have learned the benefits of hiring differently abled people (Walgreens, Boston Scientific and Freddie Mac to name a few), but the bulk of responsibility should lie with those who have the condition.

“You can train employers all day long about the benefits of hiring someone with a disability like autism, but it’s the young people who have to be educated about what they need to do, why they need to follow the rules and why they need to adapt to certain procedures,” Tom says. “People with autism are going into interviews and into jobs unprepared, not knowing how their condition affects them and not knowing what reasonable accommodations to ask for. As a result, it makes their job experience go south rather quickly.”

Among other things, he coaches people with autism on interviewing skills and maintaining high performance once hired. With a forthcoming book titled Come to Life: Navigating the Transition to Adulthood and with speaking engagements scheduled across the country, he’s helping to build that two-way bridge, one person with autism at a time.

When asked whether he’ll ever return to the profession to continue working toward his goal of becoming George Lucas’s accountant, without missing a beat, he mentions in an “indirect and retroactive way,” he already has, reminding me that he’d done accounting for Disney, which purchased LucasFilms in 2012.

Brock Faucette, Corporate Communications Manager, Association of International Certified Professional Accountants

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