Start A Self-Determination Club at Your School | Organization for Autism Research

How To

In a crowded hall filled with laughing and chatting teenagers devouring pizza, one girl approached me shyly. “You know, I really didn’t want to come to this, but I’ve had so much fun today.” “This” was a self-determination conference, organized by and for students with disabilities in my school system. Starting a club about self-determination was the first step in making learning about it fun.

The Missing Voice

Everyone would agree that the student is the most important stakeholder in the special education process, but too often, theirs is the one voice that is missing from the conversation. One way to ensure that student voices are heard is by teaching them self-determination skills

The Oxford dictionary defines self-determination as: “The process by which a person controls their own life.” For individuals with autism and other developmental disabilities, learning self-determination skills can impact their ability to understand and advocate for the supports they need to be successful and have the highest quality of life possible. Skills related to becoming self-determined should start early and include being a part of the decision-making process of the Individualized Education Program (IEP).

Research suggests that self-determination skills are linked to improved outcomes for students with disabilities in the domains of academics, employment, and independent living. For example, a 2015 study showed that students with disabilities who were taught self-determination were more than twice as likely as their peers who had not been taught these skills to be employed one year after graduation and earn a higher salary. In the short term, parents and teachers I work with report that their student has more buy-in to special education services and a better acceptance of their disability.

Setting the Foundation

Several critical domains of self-determination are interconnected and teaching them will give the student a solid foundation of skills that will be beneficial across their lifespan:

  • Self-awareness: Knowing one’s own strengths, weaknesses, abilities, and limitations, and understanding how to use these attributes to beneficially influence one’s own life
  • Self-advocacy: Skills necessary to be able to speak up or defend oneself
  • Problem-solving: Being able to identify a problem, determine potential solutions, and make a choice. 
  • Internal locus of control: The belief that one has control over outcomes that are important to one’s life
  • Goal setting and attainment: The skill of determining how one is going to accomplish what one wants (setting the goal, planning for implementation, and measuring success)
  • Self-regulation: The process of monitoring one’s own actions
  • Decision-making: The skill of choosing between two or more options
Starting a Self-Determination Club

One way to teach these skills is by starting a self-determination club. In my school system in Northern Virginia, a group of older self-advocates got together and founded a group they call “The Order of Self-Determination.” Club members decided that they didn’t want to just learn about self-determination for themselves, they wanted everyone to embrace the philosophy, including their parents, teachers, and peers.

First, the students studied the history of disability rights and familiarized themselves with the primary vocabulary and concepts surrounding self-determination. They watched videos and followed lesson plans from I’m Determined, a state-directed project funded by the Virginia Department of Education that helps children and youth learn all about self-determination and hosts an annual statewide summit for older students.

Next, several of the students co-presented with me to gatherings of teachers and parents to share the message of the importance of students learning self-determination skills in order to take an active role in their own IEP. They understood that other adults needed to have buy-in in order for more students to have their voices heard

Our third step was to pick a project to work on and the Order of Self-Determination chose a conference to help their peers both understand and embrace being self-determined. The students worked hard to plan all aspects of the conference: choosing a keynote speaker, selecting a menu for both breakfast and lunch, writing speeches, making posters and PowerPoints, brainstorming ice breakers, assembling swag bags, and assigning roles for all of the club members. At our first conference, we had about 100 attendees; at our second one this past January, we had double that.

Members have taken on other activities, as well, such as mentoring younger students both in small groups and one-on-one to help their peers feel empowered and educated. They continue to lead by example and demonstrate the importance of self-determination.

This is a model that can easily be emulated in other school systems or even colleges. Self-advocates and facilitators are welcome to reach out to both I’m Determined and The Order of Self-Determination (email OrderOfSelfDetermination@gmail.com) for ideas and inspiration.


deborah_hammer_headshotDeborah Hammer is an autism specialist with Arlington (Virginia) Public Schools, where she provides training and support to school staff, parents, and students. She serves as secretary of the Fairfax Area Disability Services Board. She is also the founder and facilitator of Cool Aspies, a club for young adults on the autism spectrum, and is chair of the Northern Virginia Transition Coalition. She frequently presents on self-determination and other topics at conferences and workshops. Her email is Deborah.hammer@apsva.us.


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