Self-advocacy: what it is and why it’s important
Self-advocacy is speaking up for yourself and your rights by communicating your thoughts, needs and preferences.
Self-advocacy skills empower autistic children and teenagers and children and teenagers with disability or other additional needs to:
- communicate what they need and what’s important to them, so they can get the support that’s right for them
- make or take part in decisions that affect their everyday lives and their future
- feel capable and confident
- develop independence
- do well at school and work.
Self-advocacy skills for children and teenagers with autism, disability or other additional needs
For self-advocacy, children need to develop:
- a strong sense of their identity and values
- problem-solving skills
- personal boundaries
- the ability to manage their emotions
- an understanding of rights and responsibilities
- decision-making skills
- confidence to express themselves
To develop self-advocacy skills, children and teenagers need supportive homes, schools and communities where they can set and achieve goals and feel a sense of belonging. Positive relationships at home, strong parent-school relationships and strong community connections can help.
Developing self-advocacy: children and teens with autism, disability or other additional needs
If you help your child develop the skills they need for self-advocacy when they’re young, your child will be better prepared to self-advocate as they get older.
A strong sense of identity and values
To self-advocate, children need to know who they are and what’s important to them. You can help your child understand themselves better by encouraging them to explore and express their interests, strengths, skills, abilities and needs.
You can do this by asking your child about their opinions and preferences. For example, ‘Why do you like watching footy with Dad?’ and ‘Do you like to spend time together, or do you like supporting your favourite team when they play?’ Actively listen to what your child says.
You can also get your child thinking about their strengths and areas for growth. For example, ‘What can you do by yourself?’, ‘What things don’t you feel confident doing?’ or ‘What would you like to learn to do?’
Your child’s decisions reflect what’s important to them and what’s worth speaking up for. This means decision-making skills are important to self-advocacy. You can help your child learn this skill by involving them in making choices and decisions about their daily routines or activities.
Visual schedules can help your child make choices about what happens in their day and in what order. Or you could create a choice board with images or words that represent activity, food or clothes options for your child to choose from.
Goals reflect what’s important to your child and what’s worth speaking up for. And your child might need to set goals to get support – for example, goals for an NDIS plan or an individual learning plan.
You and your child could create a visual goal ladder which shows the steps towards achieving your child’s goal. You could use pictures, symbols or words. For example, if your child wants to catch the bus to school by themselves, the ladder might have steps like learning where to cross the road safely, learning the way to the bus stop, practising the journey with a parent, and learning what to do if something goes wrong.
Role-play is a good way to build children’s confidence for self-advocacy.
For example, if your child is worried about asking their teacher for help, you and your child could role-play talking to the teacher.
If your child plays the teacher’s role to start with, you can show your child how to ask the question. Then you can switch roles so your child can practise asking. Your child’s confidence will grow if you give specific, positive feedback. For example, ‘You spoke slowly and clearly – well done’.
Also, if your child starts with small steps towards self-advocacy, they’re more likely to succeed and build confidence. For example, when your child is ready to speak to the teacher, you could go along for support. Your child can work up to speaking to the teacher by themselves.
Your child will need to self-advocate to solve problems. One of the best ways for your child to develop problem-solving skills is to work through real-life scenarios.
For example, your child has had an argument with a sibling about setting the table. You could talk through what happened and what they can do to sort it out. This is a good opportunity to talk about different solutions to the problem – for example, taking turns setting the table, setting it together, or alternating between setting and clearing the table.
Personal boundaries are the limits and rules that keep your child safe and comfortable. When children have a clear understanding of their personal boundaries, they can speak up for them. A circle of friends activity can help your child understand this idea. And your child can practise setting personal boundaries in simple ways, like saying no if they don’t want a hug from a relative or saying ‘That joke isn’t funny’ if someone makes a joke about their disability.
Ability to manage emotions
To self-advocate successfully, children need to be able to self-regulate and understand and manage their reactions to feelings and things happening around them. This can help your child stay calm and polite when they speak up about something that matters to them.
You can help your child by working on their skills for understanding and managing emotions and help your autistic child recognise and manage their emotions. You can also help your child learn how to calm down if they’re finding it hard to manage strong emotions.
Rights and responsibilities
To be strong self-advocates, children need to know their rights.
UNICEF’s child-friendly version of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child can help your child understand their rights. You can use examples from your child’s experiences and everyday life to help your child understand the concept. Your child also has education rights, inclusion rights and employment rights. It’s important that children also understand that rights come with responsibilities too, like the responsibility to treat other people with the respect they expect for themselves.
When you’re working on self-advocacy skills with your child, it’s good to encourage your child to communicate in a way that works for them. This might be gestures, hand signs, images or an alternative communication system.
Practising self-advocacy: children and teens with autism, disability or other additional needs
To be effective self-advocates, autistic children and children with disability or other additional needs need opportunities to develop and practise their self-advocacy skills.
Here are examples of everyday practice opportunities for your child.
Example 1: a medical appointment
You can help your child prepare what they want to say beforehand. They could make notes of words and phrases or prepare images that they can use to communicate. You could also role-play talking to the health professional so your child can practise what they want to say.
Example 2: family dinner at a restaurant
When you’re out for a meal with your child, encourage them to order for themselves. This could involve reading a menu independently, choosing something when you read the menu aloud, or pointing to a picture of what they want. You could also use a social story that covers things like reading the menu, asking the waiter for help and ordering.
Example 3: individual learning plans
Your child can play an active role in developing their individual learning plan or transition plan. This might include thinking about how they like to learn, what gets in the way of learning, or what they want to do when they finish school. They might want to prepare photos, video or drawings to express their views.
When self-advocacy goes well for your child, you can boost your child’s confidence by giving them descriptive praise. For example, ‘I really liked how calm you were when you told your sister she’d hurt your feelings’. Sometimes self-advocacy won’t go so well. In these situations, you can talk with your child about what happened and remind them that it’s OK to ask for help.
Self-advocacy in action: children and teens with disability, autism or other additional needs
When your child sees other people self-advocate, it can help your child understand why these skills are important.
This can start with you. For example, if you’re having a hard day, tell your child how you’re feeling and let them know what you need. You might say, ‘I had a hard day at work, and I’m feeling a bit sad. Could you give me 5 minutes alone please? That’ll help me feel better’.
You can also use the times that you advocate for your child as an opportunity to talk about self-advocacy.
And you can tell your child about times when you or a family member have used self-advocacy or point out examples of self-advocacy in movies.
If your child has a peer mentor at school, this can be good way for your child to see someone else communicating their needs and asserting their rights.
Self-advocacy skills can help children and teenagers stand up for their choices, cope with peer pressure and know when a problem needs adult help. For example, this might be if your child is experiencing bullying, your teenage child is experiencing bullying, or your autistic child is experiencing bullying or cyberbullying.