Opinion

'Neurodivergent tax' is a price autistic people like me have to pay

Popular marketing methods like 'free' trials ignores the vulnerabilities of neurodivergent people, and costs us dearly, says Pete Wharmby

Copies of the Beano laid out

Don't forget to cancel that old subscription to the Beano. Image: Shutterstock

Money is pretty important in this world of ours, and generally speaking autistic people find it difficult to secure and keep it, for a variety of reasons. We often, in tongue-in-cheek moments, refer to the ways that autistic people or those with ADHD lose money hand over fist as the ‘neurodivergent tax’, mostly because it feels like a pretty universal experience and appears to be totally unavoidable. 

Let’s take a moment to look at a particularly clear and painful example of this very problem: free trials
on subscriptions. 

I’ll take you back a few years to illustrate this. I’ve successfully navigated the confusing nightmare of early adulthood in the relatively safe harbour of Loughborough University, have somehow secured my degree, just about, and have opened three credit cards and secured a loan (on top of the standard student loan, of course) to help support myself.

A steady income arrives in the form of a job at a fast-food place – at last I can begin accumulating cash rather than bleeding it – and I immediately sign up for a free subscription to a magazine.

This in itself is something of an achievement as it involved making a phone call (we’re years away from internet transactions) and sharing my bank details. I’d found my bank card tucked away behind my bed that morning, and was feeling confident I could handle the odd silences and terrifying lack of visual cues in a quick phone chat as I’d nothing else to worry about for the rest of the day. A clear schedule always helps me find the energy needed for these kinds of things. And so, one call later, I was the proud owner of three months’ free subscription to Empire movie magazine. 

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The three months passed. Then a year. Then two years. 

Five years later I finally cancelled that subscription. I hadn’t actually received an issue for over three years, however. By moving house and lacking the wherewithal to tell the subscription company (another phone call, which this time I couldn’t face), I’d gifted someone in Loughborough a long free subscription, paid out of my empty, sad little wallet.

I’d fully intended to cancel the subscription after the three months had ended – sticking it to the man by claiming my free stuff and then strutting away like a boss, counting my cash. But life, and being autistic, had got square in the way. 

I believe I lost something in the region of £300 in this enterprise – enough to buy a small second-hand car in those days. And this is only one example.

I ran a poll on Twitter recently, in the spirit of scientific endeavour, to see how many autistic people had fallen foul of the ‘free trial subscription’ trap. Misery loves company, after all. The results were shocking but not unexpected. The vast majority of autistic and neurodivergent adults (around 75 per cent of over a thousand votes) had similar anecdotes to tell, and the most common response to ‘How much do you estimate you have lost?’ was £300 or more.

Now don’t get me wrong, the blame for this lies at the doorstep of those companies who use these tactics: after all, they know what they’re doing and their reliance on people forgetting to cancel preys on the disabled disproportionately, in my opinion. But it’s a very good example of just how granular the – seemingly inconsequential –difficulties faced by autistic and neurodivergent people are; I wouldn’t be surprised to find that many neurotypical people had similar stories, but not in the same quantity or so ubiquitously as the autistic community seems to have them. 

And why does it happen? The most important reason is our deficit (and for once I’m happy to use this word) in ‘executive function’. This is the set of skills that’s responsible for planning, prioritisation, organisation – all the stuff that makes an adult human work properly. We autistic people have something a little… off in that department. It’s as if someone forgot to install this particular piece of software, so every other part of our brain is trying to do that work on top of its usual job, like a computer trying to run a new video game without the necessary graphics card. As you can imagine, this isn’t particularly efficient and it goes wrong very frequently. 

And it is this autistic and neurodivergent trait that is so vulnerable to the predatory practice of ‘free trials’. How often is it possible to simply click a link or button to cancel a subscription? Instead they have us making long, complex phone calls (a torturous experience for so many autistic people that we tend to avoid at all costs) with salespeople whose only job is to try to browbeat us into relenting and keeping our subscriptions for a further five decades. It is the autistic population that is disproportionately affected by these methods, losing hundreds of pounds every year and receiving absolutely nothing of value.  

As with so many ways that we might make the world a better place for neurodivergent people (as outlined in my book Untypical), this is something that, if challenged and ideally made illegal, would benefit everybody. And on that note, I’m off to finally cancel my subscription to the Beano.

Do you have lived experience or opinions to share about this topic? We want to hear from you. And we want to share your views with more people. Get in touch and tell us more.

This article was amended on March 13 to replace the image.

Untypical by Pete Wharmby

Untypical: How the World Isn’t Built for Autistic People and What We Should All Do About It by Pete Wharmby is out on March 16 (Mudlark, £16.99). You can buy it from The Big Issue shop on Bookshop.org, which helps to support The Big Issue and independent bookshops.

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income.To support our work buy a copy! If you cannot reach your local vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member. You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play.

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