Perkins School for the Blind Transition Center

Self-Advocacy and Successful Onboarding and Maintenance of Employment

The topic of employment struggles for those on the Autism Spectrum tends to focus on gaining meaningful work opportunities, while the conversation needs to continue by looking at sustaining employment. In a 2018 study, only 14.3% of the sample sustained employment for a period longer than 18 months (Chan et al., 2018). There can be many reasons why employment is short lived. One focus area should be how language deficits characteristic in those with ASD highlights challenges with a “typical” onboarding/hiring process. Individuals can take ownership of their onboarding process to ensure a smooth transition into a new role, while setting up sustained employment.

business man shaking hands with his supportive colleague

The current state of onboarding is lacking. According to a 2017 Gallup poll, 88% of organizations’ onboarding processes are not designed well (Gallup, 2017). Most organizations (58%) center their onboarding programs around processes and paperwork, and 25% of companies say that their onboarding program doesn’t include training (Bauman, 2018). Further, 60% of companies don’t set clear expectations in terms of goals for new hires (Bauman, 2018). Looking at these statistics helps one understand that the focus of onboarding employees is not on setting them up for success. If the goal is to sustain employment, it is the prerogative of those being hired to advocate for an onboarding period that complements their strengths and mitigates their challenges.

Alissa Cappelleri, MAT

Alissa Cappelleri, MAT

Casey Schmalacker, BA

Casey Schmalacker, BA

Autism Spectrum Disorders are characterized by “persistent deficits in social communication and social interaction” (APA, 2013). Some of this is the result of weaknesses with figurative language (Kalandadze et. al, 2018). Individuals with ASDs benefit from explicit language when learning new tasks (Muller, et al., 2008). Typical onboarding is not guaranteed to be developed with respect to neurodiversity. Individuals seeking employment should utilize self-advocacy and communication strategies to make the onboarding process as successful as possible.

The onboarding process must be evaluated for potential roadblocks for those with ASDs. Guidelines may be presented that leave room for interpretation and further clarification in order for those with ASD to make meaning. In order to ensure that an individual can meet expectations, self-advocacy and individualization will be essential. The following strategies and questions to ask can enable one to advocate for themself and gather the necessary information to rise to the occasion of a new position.

Self-Advocacy and Clarifying What is Communicated

How can we define expectations?

The employer’s traditional onboarding process should be reviewed with the individual and meaningful checks for understanding are to be incorporated. Any opportunity for the new employee to put an expectation in their own words and confirm comprehension is valuable. Assumptions of clarity in terms of language use allow for gaps and may lead to a mismatch regarding what an employer was looking for and the employee’s work production. Having a shared language framework that all agree upon minimizes this potential outcome and can sustain employment. By employing self-advocacy and using questions, Individuals should compile a list of expectations to their understanding and present them for review.

What does success look like in this job position?

Expectations may be outlined in the job description. However, what is presented on paper may not align with what employers are looking for in action. By asking for tangible examples of successful work, one is able to construct a model to refer to. From there, an individual should define what a poor, average, and successful performance looks like to serve as a model. This allows for measuring performance against a concrete classification of success and enables one to identify where they are meeting the mark and where improvement is needed. This can be incorporated through mentorship and collaboration with other existing employees that are performing to the expected standards.

How is success measured?

Knowing the manner in which an employer will be assessing performance is important to seek a clear understanding during the onboarding process. Gaining insight to the specifics one will be evaluated on is important so that they may structure their participation appropriately. An employee can use self-advocacy and request to see any review documents in advance of structured reviews. They can also clarify, based on requirements and metrics found in the review, to better understand how to meet and exceed expectations by asking questions.

Knowing Your Resources

What is provided by the employer?

During the onboarding process, explicit questions should be asked about what supports are available in terms of materials and team members. Laying out all options and reviewing when to utilize them provides one with an arsenal they are aware of. Rather than taking a reactive approach to problem-solving and seeking out answers during times of stress, having a clearly defined guide facilitates the decision-making process and allows needs to be met sooner. Think of developing an On-Site Resource Guide: “When X happens, I should go to Y to assist, if I am having challenges.”

Who are the appropriate colleagues to reach out to?

Not everyone an individual works with is equipped to assist with all issues. Being knowledgeable of those around and their specialties continues to guide problem-solving and guarantees productive communication. New hires should try to build a relationship with an on-site mentor who can help point them to the appropriate colleagues when initially navigating the workplace. As time goes on, the new hire can continue to add to their On-Site Resource Guide.

Who else can be a source of support?

There are times where outside perspective and support may be beneficial. Creating a team of individuals outside of the workplace can allow one to practice skills while off the clock to strengthen their performance. Family members, friends, and job coaches present external perspectives of how those in the workplace may be perceiving the participation of the individual and can provide feedback more readily than coworkers.

Awareness Along the Way

How do we know if we need more?

It cannot be assumed that one will find the existing process accessible. Therefore, thinking critically about what is being provided helps to better make sense of the needs an individual has. Looking at what is readily available compared to the level of support necessary for success helps to see where potential areas of struggle may lie so that additional avenues of accommodations can be identified.

How do we communicate what we need?

The new employees should be prepared to use self-advocacy and state clearly what the need is and identify what resources have already been explored and evaluated. The purpose of this conversation is not only to communicate appropriately but also to outline how one can be successful in their role when armed with the most effective tools. Compiling the main points to be discussed previously and reviewing them with someone outside of the workplace best prepares the individual for the conversation.

When is the best time to have a conversation about accommodations?

During the onboarding process is the best time to communicate one’s needs. As policies and procedures are presented, one must evaluate whether they will be able to work within the expectations with what is currently being provided. It is best to communicate needed accommodations prior to beginning work. Therefore, adjustments can be made and agreed upon while preserving one’s confidence in their competence. It can be detrimental to one’s employment to agree to expectations that are not attainable which can then negatively impact their self-concept.


Self-advocacy helps to ensure successful onboarding and the retainment of employment by arming an individual with all the necessary information needed to meet job expectations while also identifying additional support if needed. Clarifying work expectations, outlining accessible resources, and demonstrating awareness of needs allows individuals with ASDs to influence the onboarding process.

Casey Schmalacker, BA, is Operations Manager and Alissa Cappelleri, MAT, is Program Coordinator at New Frontiers Executive Function Coaching. For more information, email or call (646) 558-0085.


American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders. 5th ed. Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Association; 2013.

Baumann, A. (2018). [Infographic] The Onboarding New Hire Statistics You Need to Know (with 2018 Updates). UrbanBound.

Chan, W., Smith, L. E., Hong, J., Greenberg, J. S., Lounds Taylor, J., & Mailick, M. R. (2018). Factors associated with sustained community employment among adults with autism and co-occurring intellectual disability. Autism : the international journal of research and practice, 22(7), 794–803.

Gallup (2017). State of the American Workplace. Gallup. american-workplace-report-2017.aspx.

Kalandadze, T., Norbury, C., Nærland, T., & Næss, K. B. (2018). Figurative language comprehension in individuals with autism spectrum disorder: A meta-analytic review. Autism : the international journal of research and practice, 22(2), 99–117.

Müller, E., Schuler, A., & Yates, G. B. (2008). Social challenges and supports from the perspective of individuals with Asperger syndrome and other autism spectrum disabilities. Autism, 12(2), 173–190.

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