3 Ways to Teach Neurodivergent Kids Self-Advocacy

Exploring Neurodiversity Podcast – Episode 15

by Adina Levy

Play. Learn. Chat - Exploring Neurodiversity Podcast Logo

Show Notes:

Today I’m sharing a shortie, practical episode – all about how you can teaching neurodivergent children about self-advocacy in these 3 ways:
– Explicit teaching (this doesn’t mean swear words!)
– Model when you did and didn’t self-advocate
– Incidental teaching as natural opportunities arise

Listen in to hear some ideas for how these teaching strategies can look in action with the neurodivergent kids that you support!


Speech Therapists! Join the waitlist for my course Affirming Communication for Autistic Children: https://playlearnchat.com/acac-course/

Doors officially open on 24th July 2023 (but if you’re listening at a different date, head over there to find out when the course is open!)


And also for speechies, you’re invited to my free webinar ‘Turning Affirming’, which is running live on Monday 24th July 2023 and the recording will be available afterwards so register any time!
Here’s your link ➝ https://playlearnchat.com/free-speechie-webinar/
You’ll learn 3 practical, Neurodiversity Affirming strategies to support your Autistic clients.



Welcome to the Exploring Neurodiversity Podcast. I’m Adina Levy from Play. Learn. Chat. I’m a neurodivergent speech therapist. And I’m obsessed with creating a world when neurodiversity is understood, embraced, supported, and celebrated. Join me as we have conversations about autistic, ADHD, neurodivergent experiences, and I share how you can support neurodivergent children in your world.

Let’s all work together to make change where change is needed so that the world can be a more friendly place for neurodivergent people and for everyone.

self-advocacy is all about communicating your needs, your wishes, your wants, and also the things you don’t want to other people.

Things like saying “help”, or communicating “I need help”. Things like saying, “no”, or “I want that”, or “I need this”.

self-advocacy can also be actions, like walking away from a situation that you’re not comfortable with.

It’s not always easy, even as grown ups, to speak up or communicate what we need or want that will make our lives feel more comfortable or perhaps less uncomfortable. It’s not always easy to share when we don’t like what’s going on or when we need more support. Often there’s even a level of knowing what support we need or feeling that it’s justified to request the support that we need. Now let’s think about our neurodivergent kids who might need even more support to identify their needs and once they’ve done that to even feel okay or to have the ability to communicate their wants, their wishes, and their support requirements.

So in this episode, I’m going to share three quick ways that you can teach self-advocacy skills to kids, especially focusing on neurodivergent kids, but recognising, of course, that everyone on earth can probably get better at self-advocating. Because getting our needs and wishes met is absolutely a human right, and it is valid.

Whether you’re a therapist, a parent, a teacher, an educator, whoever you are supporting neurodivergent children, I hope you’ll find these three strategies useful.

Our first strategy is about explicit teaching. Our second strategy is to model and reflect on your own self-advocacy. And our third strategy which perhaps is the least simple to control and the most effective I think, is incidental teaching.

Now I do teach more in depth about each of these in my course for speech therapists, Affirming Communication for Autistic Children. So if you are a speechie and you’d like to know more and get more examples about how this can look and some tools to support you in teaching these skills to autistic kids, let me know.

That course will be open for general registration in six days if you’re listening live. On Monday, the 24th of July, 2023.

And for those who are on my waitlist, you can actually get early access already at the moment that this podcast episode is coming out.

You can hop on the waitlist at playlearnchat.com/ acac-course. All the links that I talk about will be in the show notes, so you can just hop over there and tap it. And one more thing before I dive into the three strategies: I do also have a free webinar for speechies coming up on Monday, the 24th of July, and the recording will be available afterwards. So if you’re listening after that date, no worries. You can still access that. The free webinar is called Turning Affirming, where I teach three practical strategies to support your autistic clients in speech therapy sessions. And you can access the recording at playlearnchat.com/ free-speechie-webinar. I will pop the link in the show notes and you can follow on from there.

Let’s dive into our three strategies.

So number one, how we can teach self-advocacy to neurodivergent children is explicit teaching. And I’m not talking explicit as in swear words. I’m talking about explicitly explaining to kids what self-advocacy is. That it’s okay, valid, and important. And teaching them in the way that each individual learns best. Honouring their communication style and their communication abilities and preferences for how they can go about self-advocating. So what that looks like in practice might be sitting together with a child doing an activity that is regulating and fun for them, perhaps it’s playing Play Doh, and you’re just sitting together and having a discussion. You could say things like, ” sometimes we all need to stand up for ourselves”.” Sometimes we need to tell other people what they can do to help us or what we want. It can be tricky to tell other people what we need or want.”

Now some kids benefit from a script or an idea of what to say. This is something that can be a neurodiversity affirming strategy and it can also be not a neurodiversity affirming strategy. The key difference here is if we’re offering a script that fits what a child needs to support them to be able to use that communication in the future, and it’s something that they would want to communicate. We can offer a script as an idea, a possibility. Where this can turn unaffirming and go pear shaped is when we’re offering scripts as, “you must say this”, “you have to do this”. A behavioural strategy where they need to say or communicate something in a certain way to be able to get their outcome.

Creating scripts together, if that is a useful strategy for your particular client or student, can be a very validating and supportive activity.

So in some cases you might chat together about some of the different things that the child could say, or how they could communicate that. Whether they use sign, action, gesture, speech, visuals sounds, whatever that is for them.

You can even use other resources, things like books, or when you watch TV shows together, you can pause, if the child will be okay with that, pause at a certain point, and point out where a different character has self-advocated, the way that they communicated that, affirm the validity of it, that it was a really good idea that that character asked for everyone to be a bit more quiet so that they could concentrate.

And you could even do some teaching around when a character in a book or a show has not self-advocated and what the result of that was. Perhaps there was a communication breakdown and somebody got upset or felt really dysregulated and over time you and the child together could discuss some supportive strategies, and that might include a self-advocacy piece.

Those are some of the ideas that can fit under that explicit teaching strategy, to support kids to learn about self-advocacy, that it’s valid, when they might want to use it, and how they could self-advocate.

Strategy number two is about modelling your own self-advocacy. Both positive and negative examples. You might model whether it’s in that moment right there with the child, or reflect on your own experiences about when you self-advocated or when you didn’t self-advocate. You might reflect on… What was the situation? What was the challenge for you? Something that wasn’t comfortable or wasn’t okay by you or you needed more help?

What actions did you do to communicate and advocate for yourself, for your needs or your wants? What did you say to somebody? How did that feel for you? Did it feel uncomfortable? Did it feel okay because you practiced it? And what was the result? Did you end up feeling better, happier, more regulated, more supported because you self-advocated?

Or the flip side, did you miss an opportunity to self-advocate and that didn’t feel good or okay for you after? And perhaps in that case, the child could help you to think about what you could do to self-advocate in the future. Maybe you share a story about when you were In the line at the cafe that morning and somebody cut in on you.

And you felt really confused and a bit upset and you were also a little bit rushed for time and you were a bit worried and you didn’t know if you should say something to them. And you can reflect on whether you did or you didn’t say something, what you said, how it felt, that person’s response.

As a trusted adult in neurodivergent children’s lives, it’s so important that you are modeling that you’re going through these same experiences, these thoughts, these challenges.

It is so validating for a child to hear that they’re not the only one having these struggles or experiencing, you know, life. We know it to be normal life.

So I hope that you’re making sure in your interactions with neurodivergent kids, and with all kids, that you’re sharing with them these are part of the normal human experience, including the internal struggle to even feel valid or okay to ask for that support.

And P. S., if you don’t think you are worth getting the help and your wants and needs met, I’m here to tell you that you are.

Our third strategy for teaching self-advocacy to neurodivergent kids is incidental teaching. So I said at the start, I think this is one of the most powerful ways that we can teach and support and guide self-advocacy skills. It’s the least controlled, but it’s how a child will generalise those skills from your classroom or your therapy session or from your home life into their everyday life when they’re less supported by the people around them.

Incidental teaching is all about finding those natural moments that happen in everyday life as those opportunities come up to prompt if needed, to support, to guide, to reflect and to praise with specific praise. If that works for the child that you’re supporting.

Let’s say that you’re a speech therapist and a child is coming into your clinic room and the chair that they normally sit on has something on it, maybe some glitter has been sprinkled on it. Now, I’m not suggesting that you set these opportunities up, sometimes you might slightly creatively engineer a very small change to the situation to facilitate a few of these natural opportunities arising, but the truth is life in general throws so many challenges at kids and especially neurodivergent kids, where the opportunity to self-advocate is there so many times throughout their day that I actually don’t think we need to engineer too many of these opportunities in a fake way. But you might also find some fun or interesting ways to bring these opportunities up in your setting as long as it doesn’t bring the client or your child that you’re supporting to a level of distress. Many neurodivergent kids live their life on the edge of stress and distress and we don’t want to be adding to that.

So please don’t try to create extra challenging opportunities if it’s not appropriate for the kid that you’re working with.

Alright, so back to the clinic room. Perhaps there’s glitter on a chair. You didn’t notice. The child is going to go sit in that chair. They noticed the glitter. They were a bit worried about getting their pants dirty. That is a natural opportunity for them to self-advocate. Depending on the child’s ability, their communication preferences, that might be about just standing next to the chair and shaking their head ‘no’.

That self-advocacy might be about saying, ” hey, you forgot to clean the chair”, or “can I get a wipe?” Or even the action of going to get a wipe themselves so that they can actually clean that chair up and feel more comfortable. So there’s many ways that that self-advocacy could be expressed and that is going to be so individualised in the moment, what works for that child and what’s within their ability and what feels safe and okay for them.

So as these moments arise, Your role as a therapist, teacher, parent, whoever you are supporting this child is to encourage their self-advocacy.

Respond to any form of communication where they are sharing what they will or won’t do or what is okay and what is not okay for them. We’re not asking them to communicate it in any particular way. That behavioral approach would say, okay, you have to tell me I won’t sit down, there’s glitter on my chair, or something quite rigid and structured.

That might be okay for the child, or it might not. They may self-advocate in any of those other ways, and many others, that I’ve shared earlier. And that is fine.

So we’re interpreting any communication of their self-advocacy as communication, and we roll with it from there. We may also offer praise, specifically pointing out what they’ve done. You could say something like, ” Oh, thank you so much for showing me the glitter on that chair. I didn’t see it. I didn’t know we were about to make a big mess”. And then you can hop into modelling, helping, getting them involved, whatever that looks like. Essentially, your role here is to validate their experience where they stood up for themselves.

I hope that this episode has opened up a few ideas for you about how exactly this self-advocacy modeling, teaching, supporting can look. And there’s so many other ways we can’t cram it all into these few minutes, but you might also recognise things that you’re already doing quite naturally in how you support your neurodivergent kids in your life.

I’d love to hear from you. You can connect with me on Instagram, and share any of the ideas that you do, anything that you’ve learnt from this episode that you’ll try to put into practice so that we can teach all the kids of today and tomorrow about how they are absolutely valid to want and need certain things and it is valid to request that from the world around them.

Remember, speechies, you are absolutely welcome to my free webinar coming up on Monday, the 24th of July, or the recording afterwards register at playlearnchat.com/ free-speechie-webinar.

And you may also want to sneak onto the wait list for my online course Affirming Communication for Autistic Children. Playlearnchat.com/ acac- course.


If you found this episode helpful, please share it with a friend and join me on Instagram and Facebook. I’m @play.learn.chat

that’s Play.Learn.Chat, you’ll find all the links that we discussed in the show notes. Have a sparkly day!


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