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53: How to Embrace Being Different | Andrew Komarow

Summary:

Andrew Komarow is a Certified Neurodiversity Professional and Financial Planner to those who think differently. Diagnosed with autism later in life, he shares how he’s succeeded by embracing his differences.

Quotes:
  • “I think one of the worst things I could possibly be is boring.” – Andrew Komarow
  • “We are all beautiful, perfectly capable, messy misfits in our own way.” – Emily Melious
  • “I really try to say, what can we accomplish, because accomplishing something in the right direction, especially when it comes to advocacy or anything political or something like that, is so much better than nothing at all, right?” – Andrew Komarow
  • “It’s not charity hiring somebody who’s different or with a disability or neurodiversity or a misfit, right? You’re really adding somebody who thinks differently, can add value to the team, and at the end of the day as a business owner, can also help you make more money, which is ultimately the goal.” – Andrew Komarow
  • “Rather than just say, ‘I’m autistic, I need help’, which I don’t even know what that means as an autistic employer, right? But if somebody says, this is what I need, or can you communicate with me this way, or can I show up to work an hour early? Say what you need rather than, again, the diagnosis itself, if that’s possible.” – Andrew Komarow
  • “In a weird way, knowing why I was different allowed me not to feel so different.” – Andrew Komarow
Highlights:
  • 1:11 – Being a misfit
  • 2:27 – Advocate for Autism Awareness
  • 3:58 – Meaningful & realistic adjustments
  • 7:02 – Advice for those in the job market
  • 9:49 – Autism and financial planning
  • 12:38 – Diagnosed with Autism later in life
  • 15:59 – Advice for parents of kids with autism
  • 20:39 – Connect with Andrew Komarow
View Full Transcript

Mothers of Misfits: Welcome to the Mothers of Misfits podcast. Join me for conversations about how to advocate for our kids in a one size fits all world. Be sure to subscribe, so you never miss an episode. 

[00:00:17]Emily Melious:  Hey everyone. Welcome back to the Mothers of Misfits podcast. Today, we’re joined by Andrew Komarow. He’s a Certified Neurodiversity Professional and financial planner to those who think differently. Andrew founded Planning Across the Spectrum and is a Connecticut house of representatives Autism Spectrum Disorders Advisory Council appointee.

[00:00:38] So that’s quite a mouthful. And last but not least, he’s the father of Emma, who is three. Andrew, thanks for coming on.

[00:00:47] Andrew Komarow: Yeah, thank you so much for having me.

[00:00:50]Emily Melious: This is a great example of how this podcast has selfishly gotten me connected with these incredible people all across the country and the world. I think Andrew and I met each other on LinkedIn, we’ve never met each other in person, but I’m so impressed by his mission and how he is supporting folks with disabilities.

[00:01:11]But Andrew, I want to start out by asking you about the term misfit. We talk a lot on the podcast about succeeding not in spite of being a misfit, but by embracing being a misfit. And I really see you doing just that. So how has being a misfit contributed to your life’s work?

[00:01:35]Andrew Komarow: Again, I’m a financial planner for those who think differently. I’d like to think that I think differently. I think one of the worst things I could possibly be is boring, right?  And with your definition of misfit, right? Misfits are not boring.   That’s being different, but it doesn’t necessarily mean in a bad way. And I don’t think there’s anything more important than that.

[00:01:57] Emily Melious: Oh, I love that. You’ve absolutely captured my heart on this. The term misfit is something we need to reclaim. It’s usually used or inferred as a negative thing. But really, I don’t believe in a fit in. I think we are all beautiful, perfectly capable, messy misfits in our own way.

[00:02:18] And that’s wonderful that you just highlight that, that it’s all about what makes us unique and interesting for it. So, you call yourself a passionate advocate for autism awareness. Talk about how your personal story has played into your passion around really helping others to better understand and support the autistic community.

[00:02:46]Andrew Komarow: Well, so again, I was diagnosed autistic later in life, 27, 28, give or take that timeframe. And, as a person who runs a business, right? Who also employs other autistic adults, there’s three or four who work for me currently. I have a really neat perspective on running a business, employing people, being an employee, but then also trying to participate in advocacy.

[00:03:13] And by that I don’t mean, saying everyone can be like me, right? Because everyone’s different, and I don’t want to pretend that. But at the same time, trying to look at meaningful improvements that are also realistic. I really try to say, what can we accomplish, because accomplishing something in the right direction, especially when it comes to advocacy or anything political or something like that, is so much better than nothing at all, right? And having all of these big goals or big plans that aren’t accomplished isn’t too useful. It’s much better to set something achievable and then try to achieve it.

[00:03:58] Emily Melious: What do you see as some of these meaningful, but realistic adjustments that we can make?

[00:04:05]I’m thinking particularly in the workplace, you talked about being a business owner, and I know you care a lot about neurodiversity in the workplace and employing those with disabilities. So can you talk about where you see opportunities for improvements in the workplace?

[00:04:21] Andrew Komarow: So from the employer perspective, there’s a whole bunch, right? So I think one of the first ones is, for employers to learn a little bit more to not have the misconceptions or to, not have any preconceived notions when possible. And realize that there’s a lot of value that somebody can add. That it’s not charity hiring somebody who’s different or with a disability or neurodiversity or a misfit, right? You’re really adding somebody who thinks differently, can add value to the team, and at the end of the day as a business owner, can also help you make more money, which is ultimately the goal.

[00:05:04] But that doesn’t mean you can’t also do good at the same time. I think, there’s a perception that it can be really hard that, I’m not doing it for tax credits that might exist. I’m not doing it for charity. When I’m hiring somebody, I’m hiring somebody who’s the best person for the job.

[00:05:24] And if 50% of the time or whatever percent of the time, that person happens to be autistic or a misfit, well I just think that’s great. I’m really looking for, who’s the best for the job when I conduct an interview, right? And I think the interview process is horrible. Like as a world, country, employers and I know lots of others are trying to change that. I take a really, I think, unique approach. I don’t tell them necessarily even what the job is super specific. I want them to tell me what they’re good at, what they don’t like doing, and why. Cause if you ask somebody for, well, do you like this?

[00:06:05] Are you good at this? You know, who hasn’t put they’re good at Excel on a resume, right? And there’s very few people who can actually really use Excel, like super well. But, I really want to find out what they like doing and why, because if you get somebody who’s working for you who’s so passionate about what they do. If when they work, they’re doing their favorite thing that they could possibly be doing, you’ll get some of the best people out there.

[00:06:34]Emily Melious: Yeah, I love that you say it’s not a charity. You really do have to be in it for the right reasons, and see that it helps the business. It’s a win-win for everyone involved. We had a guest on a couple of weeks back, Corey Hollemeyer, and she really opened my eyes to the challenges of being an autistic professional.

[00:06:54] And even with advanced degrees and being well-qualified, they’re still struggling to be employed. What advice, Andrew, do you have for those who are in the job market? You have wonderful perspective as an employer and business owner, but what about those autistic professionals who are trying to show off their capabilities and get a job, but are struggling to do so?

[00:07:19]Andrew Komarow: This may not be such a popular opinion, but I think if the individual can avoid disclosing, it’s better because there’s such an uphill battle with fighting people’s misconceptions about what autism may or may not be. And it’s very easy to give limited disclosure later, right? I know we’re on the podcast, but you can see me and I’m in my office and it’s currently dark.

[00:07:43]And I really don’t like light, very light sensitive. So it’s very easy to tell an employer, light bothers my eyes, right? And ask to have the lights dim. That means something, right? That’s actionable, the employer can do something, most people have had a headache and lights bothered them, or they’ve been hung over and the lights bothered them.

[00:08:04] They can relate to that. So rather than just say, I’m autistic, I need help. Which, I don’t even know what that means as me as an autistic employer, right? But if somebody says, this is what I need, or can you communicate with me this way, or can I show up to work an hour early? Say what you need rather than, again, the diagnosis itself, if that’s possible.

[00:08:31] That’s not possible for everyone, especially if you’re not in a tech profession. That’s really where most of the autistic neurodiversity hiring programs are. In that way, you may be able to get a little bit more in the door that way. I think outside of that, you’re really best off just applying for what you know, right?

[00:08:54] Emily Melious: Yeah, well that reminds me of another previous guest that we had, Hunter Hansen, and he shared that people are at different places in their personal journey and in their comfort with disclosing about their diagnosis and what that means for them. I couldn’t agree more about coming to common ground on expressing needs.

[00:09:16] That’s universal. Everyone should feel empowered to first understand their strengths, but then also express their needs. And I would hope that employers are willing to hear that and also honor that as best as they’re able to. But keeping it in needs language, and then being mindful of there might be something more behind that, but our job is to deal with the expressed need, and give that person space to address whatever might be happening behind that on their own terms.

[00:09:49]Andrew, I’m really curious to hear what got you into financial planning. You know, you are drawn to helping those with autism and other intellectual developmental disabilities through the financial planning process. So what made you pull those two things together?.

[00:10:07]Andrew Komarow: I was just very drawn to it.  It’s just always fascinated me, I mean I’m very good with math and numbers, but I’m also not a visual thinker, many individuals with autism are. I actually can’t see in pictures at all, or even remotely, I don’t dream.

[00:10:23] So quite the opposite. I liked the numbers, but I like what they do. I like solving problems, so I used to also fix computers. And I liked that a lot for the same reason, because I knew where it was and I knew what it needed to look like. And I had to figure out how to get it there, how to make that happen.

[00:10:44]Emily Melious: Do you find that the autism community is typically underserved in the financial planning profession?

[00:10:51]Andrew Komarow: I mean really, if served at all. There are financial planners who do, again, special needs planning and the vast majority is with the parents. And really a lot of leaving the individuals out of the conversation. So there really needs to be a lot more of working with individuals themselves. Also as financial planners, the majority of us really don’t like working with analytical people, engineers, lots of questions, right? And before I knew I was autistic, I wanted to work with those people very specifically. I actually thought that’s who I wanted to work with because I knew I wanted to work with people who were like me. And ironically, I thought, well, I really like engineers, right? I really like the analytical questions. So that made a lot of sense. It’s also very complex and it’s different. So I really like the more complex, the better, and being able to work with some of the most complex planning cases out there is exciting for me. And to your point, a very underserved community, not just because there aren’t that many, if any like me and some would say thank God there’s nobody else like me, but that’s separate. But then there’s less, probably money in it. A lot of this is advocacy, a lot of the talks I do are really more advocacy than my business. You know, talking to some of the groups I do on money skills and budgeting.

[00:12:23]I’m just so passionate about it. I love it so much. 

[00:12:28] Emily Melious: You can see that you’re so passionate about it. It exudes from you.  Folks that know you just know that this is really something that you’ve given your life to completely. As you’ve mentioned a couple of times in this conversation, you were diagnosed with autism later in life.

[00:12:44] I want to hear from you, how did you feel when you received the diagnosis, and what was it like to wait so long to get it?

[00:12:55]Andrew Komarow: Well, I didn’t know what I was waiting for the entire time. So, I mean, I wasn’t stuck waiting, but no I think I get what you meant with that question. So it was complex. It was almost like, again, like some different stages of going through. So for example, even my own, oh I can’t be, like I thought I know what autism is.

[00:13:16] Oh but, oh my God. And then you go to, okay, how the hell did nobody else diagnosed me 20, 30 years ago?   And then there was almost sadness too for, if I had known so much sooner, maybe some other things could have gone better in my life.

[00:13:34] Try not to focus too much on that, and then get past to where it’s great knowing the reason for certain things, and simply being able to adapt to them. So rather than feel, well everyone must really hate light this much and just suffer through it, versus being like, okay, I know why light bothers me. I can just turn the light off, my day will be happier.

[00:14:02] So some things like that and not all of them are as simple. I think it’s allowed me to be a lot kinder to myself, and in a weird way, knowing why I was different allowed me not to feel so different, if that makes sense.

[00:14:21] Emily Melious: It does, and being kinder to yourself. Yeah, having an understanding of why and where that comes from and, you didn’t use this word, but I would say probably validating of your experiences up to that point. There is a reason behind that, and that does make you unique in good ways, and there’s also a shared experience.

[00:14:40]You were probably able to relate now differently, but relate to a community that understood you and maybe they experience it differently, but had something that they shared with you, is that fair to say?

[00:14:53] Andrew Komarow: Yeah, and I think one of the other things too is, if you’re born a certain way, and you’ve never known anything else, you don’t have something to measure it off of. So for example, I never thought of myself as an anxious person, because I’ve always been so anxious my entire life. I’ve felt more anxiety sometimes, but, I never really thought of myself as anxious because I was always anxious, right?

[00:15:23] Emily Melious: That was your baseline.

[00:15:24] Andrew Komarow: Yeah. I actually didn’t even think I had a routine, or like a really strict schedule, and my wife wanted to like smack me upside the head, right? Like, what are you talking about? And because to me that was just me, and it was nice being aware of that.

[00:15:44] Emily Melious: Yeah, seeing it from a different angle. And again, validating some of the choices you made, even subconsciously, or some of the experiences and feelings that you’ve had. And it’s that theme that starts to tie everything together. I want you to put the dad hat on now, and thinking from the perspective of a parent and also your experiences as someone with autism, what advice do you have for parents who have a child with autism?

[00:16:14]Andrew Komarow: Well first off, that individual with autism generally don’t do great with open-ended questions, and that one was kind of a little open-ended. So I’m going turn that around by getting a little more specific. It wasn’t too bad. But see, again, even something like knowing that I don’t do well with open-ended questions will allow me to say I don’t do so well with open-ended questions.

[00:16:36]Ask me something more specific, and you don’t have to say you’re autistic to say that, right? People know how to ask a more specific question. So a few things I might say, and this is very broad. My daughter’s three, she’s not autistic, and I don’t know what she’s going to be when she grows up.

[00:16:52] I don’t know if she’ll be successful or not. Nobody knows the future, that goes for neurotypical and neurodiverse individuals. So I think whatever you do, plan to focus on, again, the way I hire people, right? Which is what they’re good at versus really trying to make them well-rounded. And when an autistic person especially, can really spend the more time doing what they’re good at, what they like doing, and make that an exceptional strength, that’s the better, right? It’s okay if they’re not good at this certain skill set. Again, you need to be able to do a little bit, right? But I think it’s more important to really focus on the strengths and what somebody is good at, than try to spend so much more time on the things that they’re not good at to only get up there a little bit.

[00:17:51] And the individual won’t be that happy anyway.  As far as, money, financial, include them as part of the conversation. If people want to grow up, which well, everyone grows up whether they want to or not, everyone needs these skills.

[00:18:07] Now, nobody’s taught these skills, let alone people with autism or other disabilities or especially misfits. They’re the people who probably need them the most. And it’s really not that hard. It’s the things that are not taught in school, right? I guess maybe forever ago they might’ve been, and it can be as simple as, looking over the bank account with them, writing a check with them.

[00:18:31] My mom is one of the most financially illiterate people on the planet and, hopefully she doesn’t listen to this.

[00:18:38] Emily Melious: I know we just outed her.

[00:18:41]Andrew Komarow: She explained to me when I was five or six, what a stock was cause I was curious.  If my mom can do it, anyone can do it.

[00:18:49] She said, owning a stock is like owning a tiny piece of a company. So I’m like, so I would own part of McDonald’s? She said yes, but you wouldn’t have enough power to actually do anything. That’s a pretty easy concept, you know? You own a little bit of McDonald’s.

[00:19:05]And then when I, and again, I’m talking I was like five or six, I learned supply and demand. My mom was a real estate agent, or still is, I wanted to buy my own spot to play. And at the bottom of our street, there was a place that was set up for sale forever. So I said, how does buying a house work?

[00:19:24] Well, somebody sells it, you make an offer. So I said, okay, so it’s all about what somebody offers versus what somebody accepts. So I said, hey, this has been for sale for like two years, can I offer them a hundred dollars? Right? And six year old me thought that would work, right? Because, well it’s been for sale forever so I mean, if they’d accept a hundred dollars then I could buy it for a hundred dollars. Of course, I never got the spot at the bottom of the street to build a play fort or something like that.  

[00:19:55] Emily Melious: I’m impressed actually for a six year old mind, and a hundred bucks for a six year old is a lot of money.

[00:20:00] Andrew Komarow: Yes, exactly. I thought it was a lot of money at the time, 100%.

[00:20:04] Emily Melious: That’s excellent advice. The focus on getting them ready for life and giving them those skills, very practical skills and finances are the most fundamental of all. If we don’t have our money straight then a lot of other things in life don’t work well. And like you said, that’s true of neurotypical and neurodiverse folks, but probably those in the neurodiversity community might need some more support or might not be getting that in other places.

[00:20:30]So Andrew, I promise to work on my open-ended questions, but I think even though it was open-ended, you did a great job answering that one. Andrew, if folks want to learn more about you and the work that you’re doing, or maybe connect up with you for financial planning support, how can they do that?

[00:20:46]  Andrew Komarow: Planningacrossthespectrum.com. So that’s the best way to go. There’s Contact Us and our info.

[00:20:53] Emily Melious: Perfect. Andrew, I so appreciate you coming on and sharing your experiences, your wisdom, and really keeping us grounded in what matters most.

[00:21:03]Andrew Komarow: Of course, thanks for having me.

[00:21:06]Mothers of Misfits: Thanks for joining us for this episode of the Mothers of Misfits podcast. Make sure to subscribe, so you never miss an episode. We also invite you to visit us at MothersOfMisfits.com.

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