Life & Social Skills

Life & Social Skills

Ages: 14 - 17

Self-Advocacy Skill Building for Teens

Self-Advocacy Skill Building for Teens

It is important for your teen to learn how to advocate for themselves, to empower their right to express their needs and challenges, to get help and to avoid victimization or bullying. It takes time and coaching to develop these skills while also navigating the ever evolving social and academic stress and expectations.

Here are key skills to work on over time. Pick one or two at a time. Does your teen know how to

  • State their preferences such as “I like this” or “I don’t like that” in an appropriate manner in different situations? Note that teens who are nonverbal or have limited verbal skills can share a yes or no without using spoken language. For example, they may turn their hand away or shove with their hands. They may use an assistive device or picture chart to share their preferences.
  • Express how they are feeling, such as being upset or angry? It is important for your teen to know that they are accepted, and their perspective understood by others. Ask questions that encourage them to share more but respect when they do not want to.
  • Ask for help when something is difficult?
  • Express their needs, strengths, challenges and goals? Teens need to learn how to share that information with teachers and other professionals so they can best help them. Try to pick a teacher and situation to practice this with.
  • Assess their schedule between school, activities, therapy and homework for what they can handle? Including when will they take a break?
  • Manage their unique sensory issues and needs? This Managing Sensory Issues web page has tips and strategies from two autism self-advocates. The managing sensory issues article in the Milestones Autism Planning (MAP) Tool also has more information.
  • Sense they may be headed for a meltdown and strategies for handling it?
  • Say no to something that they do not want to do or that is uncomfortable for them? Especially for autistic teens we want to be careful to not inadvertently imply they must say yes or be too compliant, putting them at risk for victimization or bullying.
  • Participate in their Individualized Education Program (IEP) or 504 meeting? Participate in medical appointments?

Self-Advocacy Skill Building Strategies

Milestones has tips and information to help your teen develop self-advocacy skills here, including Top 10 Tips for Becoming Your Own Best Advocate and Self-Advocacy Skills for Ages 14 to 18. These are some strategies you can use

  • Seek opportunities to give your teen choices so they feel they are making decisions. You can start by offering two or three choices for something. Then as they are able gradually move to open ended choices like, "What do you want to do this afternoon when you’re done studying?" "When do you plan to do your homework today and what fun things do you want to do?"

  • Give opportunities for your teen to state their preferences such as, “I like this,” “I don’t like that” (within reason, as long as it does not pose a safety risk). It is important in empowering them and acknowledging your teen’s right to have preferences. A teen can share a yes or no without using spoken language. For example, a teen may turn their hand away or shove with their hands.

  • Explore ways to teach your teen advocacy skills while doing everyday things. Teach them to email teachers when they need extra help, or when a doctor's appointment will mean they are missing class and will need to get the homework done. When playing games, if your teen misses their turn you could teach them to say, "Hey, it is my turn now."

  • You can have your teen practice saying “No.” For example, while blocking the door when someone tries to come in at an inappropriate time. You can teach your teen to say, “I need my privacy” as a concept in their bedroom and in the bathroom.

  • As your teen develops skills, help them gradually learn to articulate their needs, strengths, and what they’re working on. This helps them develop self-awareness and eventually be able to share that with teachers, friends and other professionals to best help them.

  • Your teen can be present in their IEP meeting or in a discussion with doctors initially just to listen till they grow more skills. At a minimum, get your teen’s input for their future planning statement in their IEP from age 14 to graduation. Sometimes doctors will pull parents aside, but having your child there makes them a part of the process even if their engagement looks different.

  • The annual doctor's visit usually includes the same questions - what foods are you eating, what kind of exercise are you getting, what do you like in school, do you have any questions or concerns. Help your teen come up with answers in advance so they can participate in the doctor’s visit. You can do similarly for an IEP meeting.

  • Plan for your teen to be in situations that foster self-advocacy, like sleepovers at relative’s or family friends, overnight experiences like special needs camp programs, etc. Start small and expand incrementally. Call the Milestones free autism Helpdesk for ideas. These experiences can be key to preparing your teen for living independently (or outside your home) when they are older.

  • Pick which rules are most important for your teen. Give your teen a voice within reason for what the rules and boundaries are. It’s important for helping them gradually develop independence.

For Families Whose Teen is More Impacted

Self-advocacy skills are important for teens who are more impacted, based on each teen’s strengths, challenges and needs, such as

  • If your teen can’t express their own perspective verbally you can help model what their preferences are. Share them stated in your teen's voice as, “John likes this, John doesn’t like that.” This models for your teen what self-advocacy looks like. It starts by having your teen in the room for discussions.

  • In a doctor's appointment you can ask your teen simple questions like "Which arm do you want the shot in?" or "Would you like a pill or liquid for this medication the doctor wants you to take?" You can use a picture chart to help them express their wishes. You could give your teen their medication list to give to the doctor or medical assistant. You can work with your teen’s doctor to use a simpler pain scale expressed as a visual chart.

  • Give your teen the option to say yes or no whenever possible using tools like a visual chart with choices or by nodding yes or no. For the strategies above, think about how you could simplify or add more support using tools like a visual chart, or using their assistive device. The Milestones Visual Supports Tool Kit provides helpful information and tips.

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