Parents should begin teaching self-advocacy at a very early age by taking advantage of real life situations and modeling good advocacy skills. If you see that your child gets very easily over-stimulated by the sights, sounds and smells of large stores like Target, you can teach your child to recognize and articulate those feelings. Even before children learn to speak, parents can begin to teach them to express feelings in an appropriate manner in order to get their needs met. For example, if you see that your child is starting to get uncomfortable (most parents recognize the pre-meltdown signs - it is helpful to become aware of those signals), you can ask your child if he/she is having a difficult time. Model the words for your child and request that they repeat it back if they can. You can model by saying “Mommy, it’s very loud in this store, I need to go somewhere quieter”. For a young child, this will go a long way in preventing tantrums and meltdowns. As the child gets older, being able to express these needs could mean the difference between success and failure at school, college, in relationships or in the workplace.
When a child with special needs reaches school age, teaching self-advocacy should be continued by the schools. Parents should request that it be part of the IEP as it is a necessary part of the child’s education if they are to become more effective citizens.
As the parent of a hearing impaired child, I witnessed first-hand the outcome when a child is taught to self-advocate at a very young age. At first it may be the role of the specialist to advocate on behalf of the child but as the child gets older, he/she learns to do this in a completely independent manner. Currently in 7thd grade, my daughter has had the benefit of working with deaf and hard-of-hearing (DHH) specialists who have taught her self-advocacy since a young age. Now at the age of 12, she always knows to request to sit at the front of the class and to request that the teacher repeat instructions if she misses something important. When there are spelling tests, she doesn’t hesitate to remind the teacher to face her when reciting the spelling words, or even ask that they be used in a sentence if there is a word she can’t decipher.
Once we were out to brunch with our extended family when my 6-year old niece asked my daughter if she would sit next to her at the table. My daughter said no. At first I thought she was just being difficult and told her to mind her manners. As parents we tend not to give our kids the benefit of the doubt. My daughter quickly put me in my place. She insisted on sitting across from her cousin. After we settled at the table and were all quietly reading the menu, my daughter looked up at her cousin, and without any prompting explained to her that the reason she wanted to sit across from her and not next to her was so that she would be able to see her mouth and therefore understand her better (she relies on lip-reading to an extent and especially in noisy environments). I was amazed by her maturity and ability to be so self-aware. She instinctively recognized that it was going to be difficult to hear her cousin in the noisy environment of a restaurant and that it will be easier to converse if she had the ability to see her face and read her lips from across the table. Even more impressive was the fact that she was completely unapologetic about it, simply stating very matter-of-factly that this was what she needed and why.
As this example demonstrates, there are important benefits that come with learning about one’s strengths and challenges in order to successfully adjust the environment to accommodate one’s needs and it can be accomplished at a very young age.
Daniel Adatto, BCBA