Self-advocacy is when an individual is able to represent and explain their interests, views, and needs to others. It’s a skill that is necessary in order to communicate effectively, get our needs met, and work towards our goals.
For people with autism, self-advocacy is especially important because every individual on the spectrum is different. An autistic person may communicate verbally, or they may not; they may be self-sufficient or they may need assistance for everyday tasks; they may have sensory issues or they may need sensory input to calm down; and they may fall anywhere in between.
Because other people may make assumptions about an autistic person’s capabilities — whether their intentions are good or bad — people with autism need to be able to accurately represent themselves. This involves understanding their own strengths and weaknesses, learning how and when to disclose their diagnosis, and being able to make choices for themselves.
It’s best to start teaching your child these skills when they’re young, around the time of their first diagnosis. But if your child is older or you yourself are on the spectrum, these skills are still learnable now.
Self-awareness goes hand-in-hand with self-advocacy. After all, if you don’t know yourself, how can you accurately advocate for what you want and need? Start talking to your child early about what an autism diagnosis means for them and how it can affect how they interact with the people and environment around them. As your child grows and learns more skills, help them recognize what the consequences of their actions are, what their triggers are, what calms them down, and what they like or dislike. Developing self-awareness will help them see patterns in the effect they have on their environment, and, likewise, the effect the environment has on them.
Equally important is teaching your child to recognize their strengths and challenges. Talking positively to them about what they’re good at and where they struggle will help them learn more about themselves in a productive way.
Knowing when to disclose your diagnosis and how much about it you need to explain is another part of self-advocacy. If you need special accommodations, you must be able to communicate that to one or more people in order to navigate the event sucessfully.
For example, if you have certain sensitivities to your environment (bright lights, repetitive noises, etc.) that will make you unable to focus or trigger a meltdown, you will need to disclose your sensitivity to your boss, teacher, or other person in charge of that event. But keep in mind that you don’t need to tell them everything about your diagnosis.
You don’t need to hide who you are, but you also don’t need to leave yourself vulnerable to people by sharing your diagnosis with just anyone. People with autism can often say what they’re thinking without a filter, and while it’s not something to be ashamed of and a great many people may find it refreshing, it’s important that you recognize that there is some information that you may want to keep private. Learning there is a time and place to disclose private information — and a certain type of person (i.e., someone you trust) to disclose it to — is important so that it doesn’t get in the wrong hands and lead to bullying or manipulation.
Advocating for them vs. Self-advocacy
Teaching your child to self-advocate will increase their independence, and allow them to communicate with others about their needs and wants effectively. Advocating for your child is important — but they need to learn that skill for themselves, too. Otherwise, a person with ASD may find themselves having things done for them unnecessarily, but have no way to effectively communicate their abilities.
Even you may have the best intentions, things like setting up every appointment for them, creating their daily schedule, and doing every chore for them can make them feel stuck or frustrated if they are fully capable of doing it themselves or want to try doing it for themselves. And it not only limits what they can do, but limits what everyone around them thinks they can do.
You want to help your child reach goals, develop a mutual understanding in social interactions, and build self-confidence — but they can’t learn those skills if they don’t have the tools or opportunity to try.
How do you go about teaching self-advocacy? There are several ways to help your child develop this skill.
Click “NEXT” to learn some tips for teaching your child self-advocacy.