Underemployment > Unemployment

I see this YouTube video and I want to write about autistics and unemployment.

It’s inspiring, but here is my take after watching this: If you’re talking about unemployment of autistics, don’t talk to me about percentage rates. Don’t bring up opportunities to work. Don’t tell me about the companies that want to help. Talk to me about hiring to autistic interests, giving living wages, universal healthcare, and universal housing.

Talk to me about underemployment of autistics.

I get that autistic unemployment is a problem. But if these groups and organizations creating jobs for autistics refuse to talk about underemployment, then they’re just trading one problem for another. Underemployment is a problem for neurotypical individuals and even worse among the neurodivergent.

I continuously see capable, skilled autistics working below their strengths and education. For every person grateful that autistics are working, I have another person that’s genuinely upset that an autistic is underemployed. When qualified autistics have no opportunity to advance or play to their strengths, that track of underemployment for some autistics is far more horrifying to me than any level of unemployment.

This conversation has to move from a world of “opportunity for employment” for autistics to a strengths-based, support-based, and an advancement-oriented perspective. I want to see autistic CEOs and managers. I want to hear stories of autistic promotions. I want to hear stories of autistics that got good jobs and incomes because of their love of analytics, animals, samurai swords, or Tudor architecture.

I want to hear more stories of autistic headhunters seeking out talented autistic people. But we will never get there if neurotypical companies and communities can’t understand that from a support and strengths perspective.

Now let me be clear: I know some autistics are happy or choose to work a low-level job. I’m not a monolith — I don’t speak for every autistic person’s experience, and I will never try to. But I would rather see them doing that job with a living wage, universal healthcare, and universal housing over the way it is right now.

If I have to be that lone voice, the fly in the ointment, the bad penny that says, “No, this is wrong. Autistics have to have a stable support system and an opportunity to play to their strengths beyond just resolving unemployment and an opportunity to work,” then I will.

But I’m done watching people say autistics need to work but not talking about underemployment issues. I’m done not seeing opportunities for autistic leadership and autistic advancement.

I’m done seeing and hearing of stories that an autistic got an “opportunity to work.”

If you’re reading this, hopefully I’m not the only one, and you’re done seeing it, too.

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11 Responses

  1. I agree with everything you’re saying.

    Not sure if it’s the way neurotypicals run things or if it’s the nature of capitalism (maybe those are the same thing?), but exploiting people seems to be the name of the game. It’s not about providing meaningful, fulfilling work and security.

    I wonder if it would be significantly different if more “othered” people—autistic, different races, etc—had more influence, input, representation.

  2. Watch not to risk taking away from us the option of a low-level job being an emotionally or socially comfortable niche. The neocon economy’s oppressions have included also the concept of “overqualified !” Bosses not wanting to give low-level jobs to folks with high qualifications that supposedly they might later use to move on from those jobs instead of reliably stay in them. But you can have high qualifications and still cope badly with pressure in the jobs those qualifications are for, hence prefer to do low-level.

  3. I work for the Government of Canada. I started off as an economist. Two years later, they made me a director. But that was a bad fit. In 2019, they reclassified my job as an expert. I don’t have to supervise staff, and all of the work-related things I obsess over make me the corporate memory. But I didn’t get reclassified until I got diagnosed and got to know myself so others could know me.

    1. Raphael, that sounds really interesting. When you say they “reclassified” your job, do you mean that you told them about your diagnosis and then they redefined your position to make it better suited to your skills and abilities? If so, that sounds extraordinarily enlightened by US standards.

      1. That’s basically right. Director and expert are at the same level in the Government of Canada. But experts are very rare. They are people who know a lot about a specific topic but don’t have to manage staff. Of the 350,000 or so Government of Canada employees, there are fewer than 100 with the expert designation. The conversation between me and my boss took place over a period of several months, but the reclassification made me extremely happy. Of course, they needed to hire someone else to be the Director, but she and I get along very well.

        1. That’s fantastic and congrats on navigating through that process to arrive at a good outcome. The director/expert distinction seems like one potentially neurodiverse-friendly model that could be built upon and expanded. In so many workplaces, the automatic assumption is that “advancing” in a career means managing increasing numbers of people. Your example is a great reminder that other pathways for growing and advancing can (and should) be made available.

  4. I completely agree with what you’re saying. There’s this notion that autistic people can’t keep jobs and are therefore always at an entry level when it comes to both skills and salary. It’s frustrating because I’ve also seen just tons of autistic folks trying their hardest and burning out because their jobs don’t meet their needs, are too demanding, or have extreme social barriers. I want to see people who can only work part time still be considered valuable to a company. We deserve agency and stability, even if we can’t capitalism well.

    1. SO much this, ladysnessa!! THANK you. I have incredible skills and a great work ethic. If I could earn full-time wages on a part-time schedule (deserving FT wages due to the value of my contribution) and could advance in that context, I would have my dream job. I know that I can accomplish more of value in a 20-hour week than most people can in 40. That is not to say I am better in any way than anyone else, because I am not ~ I just know my worth as an individual. But, because 40-hour work weeks burn me out, especially if I have to be on-site and not remote, and because there is all of this fussy-busy time that is taken on playing the subtle social games of admin and office life, I can’t thrive in most work environments. My capacity to be a good mentor also often gets me promoted into a leadership or training position. The promotion is great but the demands of those roles are tailored for NT folks and most definitely not Autistic/ND employees. I think I’m rambling. I just want say that I agree with the points you are making.

      1. Your comments/thoughts are very interesting and I would really like to see more exchange on how training can be a more viable path for autistic individuals. I’m not sure if digital learning methods are the way to address this or if there are better, more suitable ideas. Given that we have a “knowledge economy” it would hopefully be a new Avenue of opportunity.

  5. I think that part of the problem is that until recently large corporate employers didn’t necessarily look at any of us as people. They thought of employees regardless of their neurology as cogs that could be fitted into the mighty corporate machine. If the employees fit then well and good. If they didn’t fit, they simply switched us out as though we were broken or worn out parts.

    The on-going pandemic has created an incredible upheaval in the workplace. With so many jobs now available, a lot of employees from restaurant servers and retail clerks to teachers and nurses are rethinking whether or not they want to continue doing their current jobs or whether they want to move on to other possibly better paying or more intrinsically satisfying types of employment.

    Labor organizers have been using this opportunity to establish new unions or to expand the rights of their existing organizations. I think that this is an unparalleled opportunity for employees to renegotiate the terms of their employment.

    I teach Culinary Arts and have connections to local chefs in the food service industry. Five years ago an applicant who told these chefs that they couldn’t work evenings or weekends would likely not have even gotten a job interview. There are now such acute shortages that servers at some restaurants have essentially been negotiating their own work schedules.

    At the start of the current school year, my district started the year with 800 teacher vacancies. We now have 900 teacher vacancies. Part of the problem is that my district has temporarily filled a lot of these vacancies with substitute teachers. Since we are now short of substitute teachers, whenever we have a teacher who calls off at work, our building admin has been asking us to fill in for our colleagues by giving up our prep period to cover for another class.

    One of the nice things about having received an autism diagnosis is that my building admin have been particularly sensitive about my needs. Given my need for structure and consistent scheduling, they haven’t asked me to cover for anyone. When the district Career and Technical Education office inexplicably decided that they wanted all CTE teachers to attend an in-person conference on January 4th even though our local area has been experiencing a new Covid surge and this meeting could just as easily (and more safely) held as a google meets virtual conference, after questioning why the district wanted an in-person meeting I was told that this conference was “optional” and that I didn’t have to attend. Guess who isn’t going to an in-person conference on 1/4?

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