Perkins School for the Blind Transition Center

Using Explicit Instruction to Teach Self-Advocacy

Those diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) can benefit from alternative pedagogy, and the utilization of different approaches for more abstract skills should be a primary focus. Self-Advocacy is a set of skills that involve executive functions, social communication, and adaptive functions. When supporting individuals diagnosed with ASD, using explicit instruction can assist in the development of self-advocacy. In order to properly support the development of these skills, families and professionals should understand the components of explicit instruction and self-advocacy so that learning can be scaffolded and developed in a meaningful and purposeful way.

Casey Schmalacker

Casey Schmalacker

What is Self-Advocacy?

Self-advocacy is defined as the “ability to assertively state wants, needs and rights, determine and pursue needed supports, and conduct your own affairs” (Izzo & Lamb, 2002). While this is a short definition, there is a lot to unpack in terms of the skills needed to self-advocate successfully. There are core skills needed for each of the components of self-advocacy. These include:

Goal Setting – The ability to set goals, whether short term, long term, or even life long, is essential for self-advocacy. If there isn’t a goal to work towards, you are not able to inform wants or needs. The “wanting” or “needing” of something is in relation to some goal being pursued.

Metacognition – Metacognition, or thinking about how you think, helps inform our wants and needs. Without the building up of metacognitive skills and strategies, an individual’s ability to proactively identify problems will be inhibited.

Self-Monitoring – Self-monitoring, or the awareness of one’s progression towards a goal or outcome, informs self-advocacy because it is the feedback loop that helps identify problems or challenges that may call for outside support.

Problem-Solving – Problem solving is a process that involves recognizing a problem, identifying potential solutions, strategy implementation, and evaluating the effectiveness of the strategy. Key to the self-advocacy process is the ability to identify when you are able to solve a problem independently, or when you may need outside assistance that you will need to advocate for.

Social Communication – Self-advocacy is inherently a social skill. Learning the social communication skills needed to “state” and pursue needed supports is essential for learning to self-advocate. Autism Spectrum Disorders are characterized by “persistent deficits in social communication and social interaction” (APA, 2013), and focus on these skills can enable the whole process to actually occur.

Planning and Previewing – While problem solving skills can address problems proactively, through planning and previewing strategies, individuals can learn to proactively identify potential problems. This taps into metacognitive skills as well.

Comprehension of Rights – Advocacy is not just about what you want and need, but also requires a base knowledge of what you are entitled too. Teaching individuals what their rights are in various contexts (e.g., academia, workplace, or other entitlements) gives the foundation for identifying opportunities for self-advocacy.

Persistence of Effort – Any advocate can illuminate on the need for persistent pursuing of what one is owed. Teaching the when and how of persistency of effort enables individuals to better identify where longer-term outcomes may require continual effort.

What is Explicit Instruction?

Explicit instruction is a method of teaching that limits implicit learning (learning that is interpretive in nature). Whereas implicit learning is implied through independent observation, analysis, comprehension, and application, explicit learning occurs when each phase of the learning process is broken down into component pieces and taught through auditory or visual means. The goal of explicit instruction is to take nothing as a given and teach each portion of skill. Individuals with ASDs benefit from explicit language when learning new tasks (Muller, et al, 2008).

In their 2017 paper, Hughes, Morris, Therrien, and Benson identify 5 main pillars for utilizing explicit instruction. These include:

  • Segmenting Complex Skills
  • Drawing Attention to Important Features through Cognitive Modeling
  • Promoting Successful Engagement through systematically faded supports and prompts
  • Providing Opportunities for individuals to respond and receive feedback
  • Creating purposeful practice opportunities (Hughes, Morris, Therrien, Benson, 2017)

Each component plays an important role:

Segmenting Complex Skills – In order to use explicit instruction, it is essential to break down abstract and complex skills into teachable units. Each of the skills needed for self-advocacy can be broken down into component skills. For example, problem solving, as presented above, has 4 main components. The second portion, identifying solutions, is not a single skill. Segmenting out this complex skill can include portions on:

  1. Reflecting on previous strategies
  2. Brainstorming skills
  3. Assessing available resources
  4. Feasibility of strategies, and more

For these abstract skills, the segmenting should be focused and designed for the particular individual. The level of segmentation required will also be determined by the individual.

Drawing Attention to Important Features through Cognitive Modeling – Cognitive modeling is an approach where an educator (parent or professional) thinks out loud to help model the cognitive processes to navigate through a problem or situation. Once the skills are segmented, there are more components: when to use a skill/strategy, how to use a skill/strategy, or how to adapt a skill/strategy to the current situation. Each of these questions should be modeled in order to encourage explicit learning. For example, when teaching self-monitoring, one can use questions like:

  • How are we doing in relation to our goal?
  • How do we know this?
  • Who are the best people that can support us with this?

Promoting Successful Engagement Through Systematically Faded Supports and Prompts – While explicit instruction calls for a deep dive into the granular, it is also necessary to slowly fade out supports and prompts. This piece is twofold: first to assess how much learning has occurred, and second to encourage the individual’s confidence that they are able to implement the new skill independently. In terms of self-advocacy, most important here is pulling back the prompts to see when and where independent skills and strategies are being implemented. Those teaching these skills may need to step back and allow a little struggle to occur. For example, an individual may be struggling in a class or a work setting, but educators (parents or professionals) should not immediately interject. Early on in the process they may use prompts like “can you solve independently?” which can lead to an answer of “no I can not, so I need to ask for help.” As this prompt becomes successful, supporters of the learner should slowly remove that prompt to identify if the individual begins to ask themselves, “can I solve this independently?” thus kicking the strategy into gear.

Providing Opportunities for Individuals to Respond and Receive Feedback – Through each of the previous pillars of explicit instruction, it is important to encourage the individuals to participate in the process. Their responses can help illuminate where there may be gaps in comprehension or where a skill is not segmented enough. Also, encouraging that feedback is not criticism, but rather that this is a part of the entire explicit instruction process can help balance an individual’s confidence, with their need for corrective feedback. With self-advocacy, it is extremely important to tie all of this to an individual’s goals so that they clearly understand the ‘why’ of it all.

Creating Purposeful Practice Opportunities – One of the challenges with teaching abstract skills to learners diagnosed with ASDs is the translation from the abstract to the concrete. The application of skills and strategies, separate from the scaffolded environment, requires many of the core skills identified above. Through the creation of opportunities to practice and utilize these skills, individuals are exposed to the actual environments in which they will need to use the skills. This opens the door for a plethora of questions from the individual to better understand how to use these skills in context. For self-advocacy, identifying opportunities like IEP meetings, interviews, office hours, and more, can help them see these strategies in action.

Casey Schmalacker is Assistant Director of New Frontiers Executive Function Coaching and can be reached at


American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders. 5th ed. Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Association; 2013.

Hughes, C., Morris, J., Therrien, W., Benson, S. (2017). Explicit Instruction: Historical and Contemporary Contexts. Learning Disabilites Research & Practice.

Izzo, M., & Lamb, M. (2002). Self-determination and career development: Skills for successful transitions to postsecondary education and employment. [White paper]. Post-School Outcomes Network of the National Center on Secondary Education and Transition (NCSET) at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.

Müller, E., Schuler, A., & Yates, G. B. (2008). Social challenges and supports from the perspective of individuals with Asperger syndrome and other autism spectrum disabilities. Autism, 12(2), 173–190.

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