Basic advocacy skills: Step by step

Advocacy Tool Kit

By Ann Shalof

This excerpt from the Autism Speaks Advocacy Tool Kit was written by Ann Shalof, a nonprofit professional focused on youth advocacy and empowerment. 

It is helpful to think about the advocacy process as a series of steps that can be taught and learned. Most of those steps relate to preparation. Before you even begin to “advocate,” you will want to have determined your goal, thought about how you will proceed, and developed a plan.

Steps to building advocacy skills

Step 1: Identify the goal of your advocacy.

  • What are you hoping to accomplish?
  • What are some acceptable outcomes?

Step 2: Develop a plan or strategy.

  • What facts and arguments support your position?
  • If relevant, what rights do you have, what laws apply, what resources exist or what benefits or services are you entitled to?

Step 3. Consider the perspective of the party to whom you are advocating.

  • Anticipate and understand their positions and their arguments.
  • How might you counter those arguments?

Step 4. Be aware of emotions – on all sides.

  • Your advocacy should be rational. It is important to avoid being governed by emotion and to avoid making your advocacy personal.
  • The other party may be governed by emotion. It is important that they understand that your advocacy is based on rational considerations and is not personal to them.

Step 5. Understand to whom you are advocating and to whom you ultimately need to advocate.

  • Does the person you are addressing have the authority to grant your request or resolve your situation?
  • What constraints does s/he face?

Step 6. Present your “case.”

Step 7. Consider possible resolutions that might be acceptable to all parties.

Example scenario:

Your child is not progressing satisfactorily in his school and continues to engage in problematic behaviors at home that you feel are not being adequately addressed. While you feel the staff has been conscientious, you believe that they lack the expertise necessary to help your child and that the services he is receiving are not sufficiently intensive. As a result, you request a meeting with the school team to discuss his program. 

  1. The first step in the process is for you to identify your goal. What is the point of your meeting? What are you hoping to achieve through this process? Perhaps there is a program in a neighboring school district that you feel would be perfect for your child; placement there would be your ideal outcome. Are there other outcomes that are acceptable? Perhaps additional hours of home ABA therapy would also suffice.
  2. You then need to devise your plan. What evidence can you gather to support your view – i.e., to demonstrate to the team that there is a continuing problem? What is your child entitled to? How will you demonstrate that his current educational program is not appropriate?
  3. In preparing for the meeting, consider the perspective of the other party, in this case, the members of the team. You may have several goals: you want them to support your request for a new placement or at least for additional services. You also want to preserve a good working relationship with them, if possible, especially if they will continue to play a role in your child’s education. If they have been conscientious and dedicated to your child’s education, they may take personally your request to move your child out of district and view it as criticism of them personally or professionally.
  4. That is, their reaction may be based on their feelings and emotions. The school district itself may be concerned about its budget, payments to another district, or setting a precedent and opening the floodgates to requests that it can’t accommodate. All of these factors may shape the response you encounter. The perspective of the other party, or the possible personal reaction to your advocacy, will not necessarily shape your goals. However, it should shape your strategy.
  5. You are bringing your concerns to your child’s teacher and school principal. But are they empowered to grant your request? If you are advocating to someone who lacks sufficient authority, no matter how hard you press – and regardless of whether they are sympathetic to your position – they will be unable to grant your request. The goal of your advocacy with the team might then be to get them to support you in bringing your request to the district level – to make them allies and not opponents. Think back to step 3 and remember their perspective as you plan your advocacy. 
  6. After thinking about your strategy, you attend the meeting at the school and let them know your concerns and your point of view. That is, you present your case.
  7. In some cases, your goal will be absolute. Your child may be entitled to certain services as a matter of right and you will ensure that they are provided. In many cases though, there may be a number of possible resolutions. In this scenario, your ideal goal may be that perfect out-of-district placement. But are there other resolutions that might provide an appropriate education? Perhaps additional hours of ABA home therapy will be sufficient. In your advocacy, you should be open to and anticipate other resolutions that may be acceptable to all parties. 
Read more in the Autism Speaks Advocacy Tool Kit.

For this discussion I am indebted to Betsy Krebs and Paul Pitcoff, my former colleagues and founders of Youth Advocacy Center and authors of On Your Own as a Young Adult: Self-Advocacy Case Studies and On Your Own as a Young Adult: Facilitator’s Guide, (JIST Publishing, Inc., 2006).