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  • Jaime Openden, M.S. CCC-SLP

Self-Advocacy for Individuals with Special Needs

I need help with this problem. I don’t understand this sentence. Can you please repeat what you just said?

These words are the best gifts a student can give a teacher. As educators and therapists working with children with special needs, we do everything in our power to help children learn, grow and achieve their goals. We focus on academics, social-emotional development and real-world skills that children can use outside of the school setting. In short, we are preparing children to become active, well-developed members of society.

In the world of special education, we like to think that we know our students incredibly well, and in many respects, we do. I know my students’ favorite colors and foods, their after-school activities, their sibling’s names and their vacation destinations.

Yet one of the most critical pieces — what my students are thinking — often remains a mystery due to students’ communication challenges and fear. They don’t often share their concerns, complain of confusion, or ask for assistance. One of my roles, just as that for all of us who work with children with special needs, is to get to the heart of their problems and guide them past their confusion. We learn to ask the right questions, decipher facial cues and identify other signs of bewilderment, misunderstanding and struggle.

But there is a whole giant world outside of school and therapy, a world without the cushion of educators and therapists. In this world — the “real world” — the grocery store clerk is impatient, the librarian is too busy, the MTA employee isn’t aware and the boss simply doesn’t care.

How do we prepare students for that world?


Wrightslaw gives the following definition of self-advocacy:

Learning how to speak up for yourself, making your own decisions about your own life, learning how to get information so that you can understand things that are of interest to you, finding out who will support you in your journey, knowing your rights and responsibilities, problem solving, listening and learning, reaching out to others when you need help and friendship and learning about self-determination.

Self-advocacy isn’t as simple as raising a hand and saying, “I don’t get it.” In order to advocate effectively, students must learn the kinds of questions that will yield the most helpful results. Not only must they learn which questions to ask, but who to ask and when to ask. Most importantly, they must learn that asking for help is not a sign of weakness, but a demonstration of strength.

There are a host of great online resources to help both educators and individuals with special needs learn more about self-advocacy. To find more information or to join a self-advocacy organization, check out,, Autism Speaks, and Allies In Self-Advocacy.

Have a self-advocacy story to share? We’d love to hear it!

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