How to Teach Self Advocacy Skills in Speech Therapy

Shifting “Social Skills Training” to “Self Advocacy”

In graduate school, I was taught that it was important to help clients to appear as “neurotypical” as possible. We could do this by teaching them skills, such as life skills, sign language, requesting, etc. We were taught to use strategies such as “Hand Over Hand” to demonstrate these skills for students.

There are a couple of problems here: 1) Providers were (are) taught to handle other people without their consent, 2) Neurodivergence is a naturally occurring difference

An additional problem- and in my mind- the most concerning problem: violence against disabled people is four times higher than non-disabled peers (BJS, 2021). So here is where I propose a change: shifting the traditional “social skills therapy” that was intended to make neurodivergent people appear more neurotypical to “self advocacy training” to increase clients’ ability to use functional communication. This includes protesting, consenting/not consenting, dissenting, requesting assistance, making choices, and more.

I started implementing “self advocacy” training in my therapy this year. One of the most different (meaning different from my previous practice) things I’ve taught is “don’t touch me!” This can be communicated in a variety of ways, including gestures, verbal communication, using an AAC device, and more.

Initially, I wondered if I’d be met with resistance from parents, teachers, and other providers. While there may have been some initial questioning of what we were doing, once I explained the “why” (the statistics on abuse, the nature of neurodiversity, etc)…most parents, teachers, and other providers were on board. In fact, one of the most common things I’ve heard from parents is “that’s my biggest fear”. The truth is, self advocacy and dissent are basic human rights. Everyone deserves the chance to advocate, defend, report, and consent/not consent. *I admit that I did not always practice speech therapy in this way and I also recognize that it’s never too late to learn something new and adjust practice.

For more information on Hand Over Hand vs Hand Under Hand, click here.

For abuse statistics, click here.

For a paid resource for teaching self advocacy, click here.


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My name is Elizabeth Hepler and I’ve been a practicing Speech-Language Pathologist since 2005.  I am the mother of four great kids. Our household is neurodiverse: ADHD, Autism, Gifted, and more!

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