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Maya Angelou, an African-American civil rights activist, poet, and memoirist, wrote, “I learned a long time ago the wisest thing I can do is be on my own side, be an advocate for myself and others like me.” That short sentence captures what is so important about self-advocacy. When we can speak up for our needs, for what helps us to realize our goals, we can advance not only our own lives and dreams, we also help others advance along with us. In this How To article, four autistic people share what they have learned about advocating for themselves.


Determine what you need and figure out how to communicate that.

Do what is best for you, even if it may not conform to traditional pathways. Everyone is different, but following a path you created and feeling confident about your environment will make all the difference in helping you reach your goals. I knew that high school was not the right environment for me so I created a pathway that enabled enrollment at an independent study school and university simultaneously. I graduated high school at 16 with over 60 college credits. From there, I continued to advocate for myself and was approved for accommodations that helped reduce the noise and distractions of a typical classroom. As a result, my capabilities have flourished. This spring, at the age of 18 and just two years after I graduated from high school, I will be graduating from college with two degrees. —Samantha Harker

Self-advocacy for me meant learning how to determine what I need and then how to communicate this need. In the past, I would have been unsure of what I needed and how to communicate it. This would leave me going along with any plan while feeling overwhelmed, resentful, anxious, and overloaded. As a result, I often found myself experiencing meltdowns and burnouts. Recently I had the opportunity to see how far I’ve come when my wife and I were having conversations about her upcoming major surgery. We had a lot of conversations about caring for our active 1-year-old daughter during her recovery. We also talked about and ended up making plans that took everyone’s needs into account, including mine. This helped me feel like I could show up for my family without putting my health and well-being aside. — Kris McElroy


Ask for the accommodations that will enable you to do your best.

I am often asked to speak on panels and I always request questions ahead of time. Having the questions in advance means I can prepare so that I actually answer the questions and do so concisely and elegantly. Keep in mind that you can ask for accommodations without disclosing. People may better understand why you are asking if you disclose, but disclosing is your decision to make. In my case, many panels I speak on discuss disability and/or autism, so the organizers are prepared for accommodations. —Ava Rigelhaupt

Self-advocacy is the public-facing side of self-care. It involves asking for what I need to function effectively in a neurotypical environment. It ranges from asking for the TV to be muted in a waiting room to being seated in a quiet part of a restaurant. It can be daunting to speak up for myself in these places, but every time I tell someone that I am autistic and require an adjustment, I’m making it that much easier for the next autistic to make a similar request. —Christine M. Condo


Be comfortable with setting boundaries.

Know yourself: strengths, challenges, likes, dislikes, and honor those. Don’t feel pressured to change or to fit in. Being on the spectrum means we have different needs than other people do, even others in the disability/neurodiverse community. It’s okay, for example, to attend events where you’ll be comfortable, and decline those where you may experience sensory overload or burnout. Friends will find activities everyone enjoys. —Ava Rigelhaupt


If something does not seem right to you or for you, ask about it.

Asking questions helps us to learn and understand in all situations. Being proactive and asking others about their perspectives can bridge your understanding in situations where you need clarification. I was raised in an abusive home. I knew the way I was being treated wasn’t normal, but deviating from my routine scared me. By talking to others and asking about their families, it helped me see that I was growing up in an unhealthy environment. If I had not asked others what their normal looked like, I would have never known about the disparities in my life. —Samantha Harker


Don’t be confined by limits — your own or those others place on you.

People see the diagnosis “autism” and place limits on what they think we can and cannot do. Don’t let arbitrary limits define you. You are capable. Advocate for what you want to do. When I decided to study abroad in Italy, I was nervous but excited. I made sure I had the right accommodations, and I took the leap. Were there times I was uncomfortable? Yes. But I discovered another country, ate great food, met new people, and learned a new language. When I stepped outside my comfort zone and lived with uncertainty, I grew exponentially. —Ava Rigelhaupt


Ava X. RigelhauptAva X. Rigelhaupt is a writer, actress, and advocate for diversity/disability representation. As an autistic, Chinese, Jewish adoptee, she shares her intersectional experiences through script and character consulting and speaking on panels. She educates and influences the film industry by  creating authentic representations of underrepresented communities. She is a 2020 graduate of Sarah Lawrence College.



Christine M. CondoChristine M. Condo was diagnosed with Autism Level I, also called Asperger’s, in 2015 at the age of 42. A writer and neurodiversity advocate, she specializes in combating autism stereotypes and increasing neurodiversity awareness. She is pursuing a master’s degree in disability communication at George Mason University.




Kris McElroyKris McElroy is an autistic, biracial, black, transgender man with multiple disabilities who enjoys spending time with his wife, daughter, and family. He earned a Bachelor of Science in psychology and a Master of Science in multidisciplinary human services. He is a passionate freelance writer, artist, and advocate.




Samantha HarkerSamantha Harker is a 17-year-old senior at the University of Health Sciences and Pharmacy in St. Louis and Arizona State University, double majoring in medical humanities and English. Samantha hopes to work in the field of autism research and continue to advocate for herself and others with autism.