Self-Advocacy For Teens

Steven Spielberg

Students with special needs, including ADHD, learning disabilities and autism spectrum disorders, often need people to advocate for them in order to get appropriate supports from schools and practitioners. Most of that job goes to parents and grandparents during early and middle childhood. When these students hit the teen years, however, they need to begin learning how to advocate for themselves. With high school graduation just a few short years away, it’s time to start thinking about how they’ll fare in less protected environments.

After graduation, how will a student handle a situation in which a boss gives him a task that he doesn’t understand? Or a professor or instructor gives an assignment that she doesn’t understand? Or a co-worker asks him why he has a specific accommodation?

What skills do these students need to learn before graduating in order to be able to handle these types of situations? Remember, teens with learning differences grow up to be adults with learning differences. Adults with learning differences have to live in the “real world” where people who don’t know them will not automatically accommodate them or tolerate their differences. Adults who are too reliant on having others speak for them are less likely to thrive and more likely to fail. The aim of self-advocacy skills training is to give students the tools they need to function independently once they leave high school. That means they will not need someone else to think for them or speak for them. This preparation can take several years, so it’s best to start, at the very least, when the child in middle school.

What is Self-Advocacy?

Self-advocacy refers to people with disabilities speaking up for themselves. Parents can help their teens to be effective self-advocates.

1. Facilitate self-discovery and self-awareness. Gradually give your child more information on her learning disability while consistently highlighting strengths and talents.

2. Foster self-acceptance. Don’t try to hide your teen’s disability from his as this only creates an atmosphere of shame. Be frank about the terms educators and clinicians use to describe the learning disability (e.g., ADHD, LD, etc.) all the while emphasizing that this difference isn’t necessarily a handicap. You want him to be able to say, “I know it’s okay to learn differently and I can be successful in life.”

3. Teach self-advocacy skills. Help your teen to begin practicing speaking up for herself. In situations where you would normally do the talking, let your teen try it out. Make sure she knows what medications she takes and why or what accommodations she needs and why. You want to build your teen’s confidence in being able to say, “I know how to explain how I learn and to ask for what I need in order to succeed.”

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