Teaching Autistic Kids to Advocate for Themselves

Last time I talked about advocating for your autistic kids, which is a big responsibility in itself.  Today I want to talk about an even more important responsibility: teaching autistic kids to advocate for themselves.  I know it can be hard to think about when your kids are small or still working on simpler things like tying their shoes or being in public without meltdowns, but autistic kids do grow up.  At some point, they will have to speak for themselves. (By “speak”, of course, I mean communicate their own thoughts, whether that’s verbally, by text, or using assisted communication technologies.) 

Age Appropriate Lessons

I know, as parents, you’re probably wondering how on earth you can teach your autistic kids self-advocacy on top of everything else you want them to know.  But it doesn’t have to be complicated – just tailor it to what your child can do, like everything else.  I’m going to talk about it in terms of non-cognitively impaired kids, but if you’re dealing with that impairment, adjust these ideas as needed.

Preschool – 8 Years or So

Early childhood tends to extend a little longer for autistic kids because we take longer with our social and emotional development, so I’m extending this from the age they start speaking (communicating) until about third grade.  You may think there’s so much they need to catch up on that there isn’t room to add in self-advocacy, but I disagree.  At this age, kids can start to take up for themselves by learning to identify and name their feelings.

Lots of us on the spectrum have trouble clearly identifying emotions, especially negative ones.  In my late 30s, I still struggle to differentiate between feeling scared, depressed, and angry, among other things.  As a small child, being able to put a label on an overwhelming feeling gives a sense of mastery over it, some sense of control.  It’s the first step to emotional regulation, which most of us struggle with well into adulthood. 

On top of all those independence-building benefits, learning to clearly name their feelings will make adults – teachers, therapists, and even parents – less likely to brush kids off as “being difficult” or “throwing a tantrum” when they’re upset or edging on a meltdown.  When a child can say (or otherwise communicate) “I’m scared”, “I’m angry”, “I feel sad”, etc., they are more likely to be taken seriously and to have their needs met.

9-10 Years to 12-13 Years

Older kids who can already solidly name their emotions and communicate them can learn to ask for help when they need it.  In this age range, NT peers can become really awful about targeting differences, which can make autistic or otherwise neurodiverse kids keep to themselves.  Teachers’ patience wears thin even with NT kids in the middle school years, so autistic kids may get bad reactions when they ask for extra attention.  Let’s face it – middle school sucks all around.

At this age, autistic children can learn that needing help is not a weakness or something to be ashamed of.  It actually shows maturity to understand where you’re struggling and reach out.  Use that emotional regulation you’ve been working on since early childhood to help them learn to ask for help in a calm manner instead of lashing out in frustration.  Being able to clearly and calmly communicate a need for help will give an autistic child a sense of accomplishment and control, and it’s likely to get them a much better result from any adult who might otherwise accuse them of “acting like a baby”.

As a side note, there will almost certainly be some teachers or other adults who react badly to your autistic kid asking for help even in the calmest, most mature way.  This will be so confusing for your kid, who probably won’t be able to grasp what happened.  In those cases, make sure you explain to them that adults can do wrong, too, and talk through the situation so they can see where things went off the rails.  Without some understanding, one too many of those bad interactions could shut down an autistic kid from ever asking for help again.

Teenagers – Young Adults

Most teenagers want to be treated like adults, so this is a great age to learn about rights and responsibilities.  Most of childhood is spent being told what they must do – clean their rooms, turn in their homework, go to bed at a certain time – all responsibilities and no rights.  In the teenage years, as they prepare for adulthood, autistic kids also need to learn what their rights are and how to keep them.

In school, this can mean the accommodations they are entitled to, such as extra time, verbal testing, an aide, or the like.  At home, it can mean the right to determine their own schedule or choose their own activities.  In the rest of the world, knowing their rights means learning how to navigate the complicated system of services available to autistic people, how to get and hold a job, how to drive, and how to live with roommates or alone. 

Autistic young adults need to have the confidence to ask for the rights they’re entitled to, as well as the responsibility to do what is required of them.  This will help keep them from being bulldozed by teachers or bosses who think they can get one over on the autistic person, as well as give them the tools to make the system work for them as much as possible.  It’s really no harder to teach an autistic teenager these things than it is to teach an NT teen.  It might take a bit longer, but it’s crucial to developing their independence.     

Modeling Advocacy

You’ll still be doing a lot of advocating for your kids as they grow up, which is why it’s so important that you do it in the best way possible.  When you have to go to bat for your autistic child, let them see you do it.  Let them see that you are on their side and you will fight for them, so they know they have support.  But also show them how it’s done. 

Advocate for your child the same way you want them to advocate for themselves.  Show them how to be resolute and not give up without making unnecessary scenes (keyword: unnecessary).  Model the emotional regulation that they will need when they’re in a similar situation.  Teach them not to be afraid of those “in charge”, but instead to have all their paperwork in order and an unassailable case. 

Self-advocacy is an important skill for autistic children to develop as they grow up.  It’s the key to living their best lives and developing as much independence as possible.  The ability to advocate for themselves is the key to autistic adults’ quality of life and it has to be taught.  Your autistic child will have to work harder than you to be taken seriously, so please give them the tools to do so.

Teaching Autistic Kids to Advocate for Themselves

Autistic adults, how did you first learn to advocate for yourself?  Did you have a particular teacher you had to stand up to?  What do you wish someone had taught you about advocating for yourself?  Let’s help out the next generation!   

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