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What We Can Do About Underemployment in the Autism Community

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It’s well-documented that autistic adults in the workforce experience disproportionately high rates of unemployment. As we recognize Autism Acceptance Month in April and focus on how to be more inclusive of autistic people in all aspects of society, it’s worth taking a closer look at another group: the underemployed.

Underemployment is a term that is slowly making its way into the common vernacular, but many people still don’t fully understand its implications. While unemployment is widely recognized as a problem, underemployment is often overlooked. It’s a complex issue that affects many people from different demographics, but it’s more prevalent among certain groups, such as the autistic and larger neurodivergent communities.

Unfortunately, the statistics for underemployment among these groups are not clear, as they are often lumped together with unemployment. However, regardless of the statistic, the number of underemployed autistic and neurodivergent individuals is likely much higher than most people would assume.

When we do think about underemployment, we often think of highly skilled professionals working in low-skilled jobs, such as a super coder working at a fast-food restaurant. While this is certainly a form of underemployment that is common among the autistic and neurodivergent populations, there are many other types of underemployment that go unrecognized.

As the head of recruitment and community partnerships for auticon US, a company that employs autistic adults as technology consultants, I’ve met with hundreds of candidates and learned about their struggles with underemployment. Through this experience, I’ve come to believe that understanding the causes of underemployment among autistic adults is key to breaking the cycle and creating inclusive environments that are conducive to long-term career growth.

What Underemployment Can Look Like for Autistic Professionals

One of the most common forms of underemployment is job hopping. This occurs when individuals switch jobs frequently, often every few months or years, not for salary increases, but because they are let go or have to leave due to a non-inclusive work environment. When a neurodivergent employee is not being supported in their work environment, they may experience burnout or have a difficult time working with team members, leading to job loss. For neurodivergent individuals who may not disclose their diagnoses for fear of discrimination, their traits may be seen as negatives, again leading to job loss.

For example, some common autistic traits that can be assets but are often misunderstood in the traditional workplace include asking a lot of questions about specific details, being “too” direct or straightforward, or not participating enough in social aspects of the job, leading colleagues to feel they are uninterested. People who have been job hopping due to a non-inclusive environment may on the surface look like they’ve been gainfully employed in their area of interest, but in reality, they are unable to benefit from job security due to the workplace environment.

Another form of underemployment is caused by non-promotion. In the corporate world, there are certain expectations for climbing the ladder, including networking, volunteering for projects, and speaking up in meetings. However, these unspoken rules and social ventures can be challenging for many neurodivergent individuals, leading to limited opportunities for advancement.

Additionally, some companies may not have a standard review and raise schedule, leaving many neurodivergent individuals stuck in a low pay grade unless they take on the often-daunting task of advocating for themselves. I personally know of many neurodivergent people who have fallen victim to this last scenario. One person found that after years at her company she was still being paid in the lowest tier—the same as interns!—while her coworkers were being paid three or four tiers up.

In an inclusive work environment, promotions should be based on skills and abilities rather than social games. Making the shift toward inclusivity involves letting go of the common myths about leadership that can lead to discrimination against neurodivergent employees.

Addressing Underemployment Through Inclusive Hiring Practices

Once these forms of underemployment are recognized, how can we work to address them and solve this problem? It starts and ends with inclusive hiring practices. Inclusive hiring is a life cycle, so it’s not an easy, one-time fix. Starting before the interview, you need to address the screening process. Are you using an AI tool that screens out people lacking the perfect keywords or without the exact amount of experience requested? If so, you will miss out on all the people who have been unable to secure a job in their field but have the necessary skills, and all the people who haven’t had access to education on how to optimize a resume for these systems. To be an inclusive hirer, you need to be open to reviewing each candidate’s skills and abilities, not just relying on the resume keywords or expecting to find the perfect match for every check box.

Once you have your candidates in the door, the commitment to inclusivity must continue. Consider making your interview process less stressful and more fine-tuned. For example, share questions or general topics to prepare for in advance; be up front about what you’re looking for in the person who fills the role; and be ready to only evaluate against the things actually needed for the role. Maybe your team is really dynamic and social, and you typically look for someone who is a “culture fit.” In that case, I recommend asking yourself, does everyone on the team need to be like that for the team to work? Or can some people be quieter and less social, but still have all the skills to perform the job and work effectively with the team? If you are screening out people based on things that aren’t required for the job, then you are not practicing inclusive hiring.

Inclusivity Means Supporting Employees’ Needs and Career Goals

Once you’ve hired someone, the inclusive practices don’t stop there. It’s important to bring these practices through the full employment cycle in a variety of ways. One way is to ensure easy access to accommodations through a proactive approach. Ask employees (neurodivergent or not) what they need to succeed and have an open policy on tailoring work environments reasonably to individual preferences and needs. Keep that conversation going throughout the time of employment, because needs will change, and many people will not speak up about what they need due to fear of getting fired. Ensure that your employees have an open and honest relationship with coworkers and managers so that they can provide feedback, ask questions, and know what is going on in the business that may affect them.

One more thing to keep in mind is that each person’s career aspirations vary, and there is not one “correct” path. To help neurodivergent employees succeed on their own terms, employers must be prepared to meet employees where they are. For some, it will be a strong desire to climb the ladder quickly and be promoted after years of underemployment. But for others, they may reach a point at which they are content in their role and will not want to advance. The latter is often seen as a negative—as someone who lacks drive. But you will always need great employees at every level, so if someone excels in their role and is satisfied in it, that’s a win-win.

We know that neurodiversity is good for companies, resulting in higher productivity and retention and reduced costs. It’s time to make sure every company is taking steps to recruit, hire, support, retain, and advance (when desired) neurodivergent employees. When we reframe outdated and discriminatory standards of what makes a good employee and instead focus on each person’s skills and strengths, we move toward creating equitable employment opportunities for neurodivergent people. Together, we can break the cycle of unemployment and underemployment, one inclusive step at a time.

About the Author

Louise Stone leads recruitment and community partnerships for auticon US. Since joining auticon three years ago, she has been at the helm of the company’s autism-friendly recruitment process. She also writes and speaks on autism and employment issues.

Getty image by PixelsEffect

Originally published: April 10, 2023
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