The Importance of Self-Advocacy

Categories: Behavior | Uncategorized

Part of being an effective advocate is teaching children the skills they need to speak up for themselves. It’s never to early to foster self-advocacy. It’s a skill that constantly evolves as the child develops, and one that must be cultivated over time, simply by teaching the next right thing. I remind myself of that when I get overwhelmed by what feels like a huge goal that feels insurmountable at the time- just teach the next right thing.

What is self-advocacy? It’s defined as the ability to speak on one’s behalf and represent personal needs and interests. It involves understanding one’s learning strengths and developing the ability to communicate learning needs and required accommodations.  Self-advocacy is especially important for students with autism, and is necessary to achieve a higher level of independence,  confidence, and a sense of identity.

Self advocacy should be taught explicitly, and practiced at school, out in the community and at home. How that will look and the goals that will be targeted will look differently based on the particular student and current baseline.

I would love to share three tips I use to foster self-advocacy in my two sons with autism.

Do NOT ask a question where a statement is required.

This is a BIG ONE for me, and one I didn’t learn how to implement overnight. DO NOT ask a yes or no question, if the student can’t say no.

“Do you want to go inside now?”

“Do you want to go to the library?”

“Do you want to do your worksheets?”

Too often we present something that isn’t a choice, as one. Then, if a student says, “No” and we don’t honor it- we are teaching them that their NO doesn’t matter- and that their words don’t matter. When I do this by mistake, (which of course I do!) I then make sure to honor the NO- even if it’s temporary.

“Are you ready to go home?”No? Ok, we will stay for 5 more minutes. Let’s set a timer now.

Offer choices

One great way to increase self advocacy is to ensure that their students have opportunities to make decisions and to make choices. Selecting from options can create an awareness of personal preferences, interests and strengths.

This can be something as little as, “Do you want the blue marker or the red one?” or “Do you want to play a game, or go outside?” Many students with autism are professional learners all of their life. So often they DON’T get a choice to give their input when it comes to going to school/therapy. That’s why I love to give options when I can.

Let them struggle.

Boy is this one hard, but imperative for growth. Early in our journey I heard a term called, “learned helplessness”, and it was described to me as constantly doing for the student and creating an unnecessary dependence on an adult, greater than their learning disability could ever cause. WOW. When presented that way it took my breath away. Talk about an ah-ha moment for me, as a parent who, like most parents don’t like to see their child struggle. Learned helplessness is not- oh they are having a hard day so I will help with this one thing. It’s a consistent, daily effort.

It’s zipping their jacket instead of letting them at least try on their own.

It’s prompting them to pick up something they dropped the instant the drop it.

It’s asking a question, and providing the answer if they don’t respond immediately.

When a problem comes up, It’s stepping in before your child has a chance to solve it.

I see it done so often, and usually with the best of intentions. However, the MOST loving thing you can do is let your child or student struggle before you jump in. It may mean letting them make mistakes. It may mean something will take ten times longer. But it’s vital to what I believe we all want to teach.


Sometimes in the list of skills we need to target, self advocacy isn’t always in the spotlight. You can write goals specifically for self-advocacy, or embed it in teaching all skills throughout the day. Students who know how to self-advocate have an important skill that supports lifelong success.

Chrissy Kelly
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1 Comment

  1. Thank you for this information, Ms. Chrissy Kelly! This is very useful.


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