Welcoming Dissent… Self-advocacy, the communication hierarchy, and rethinking tone

My thinking and learning around the ideas and concepts of self-advocacy is being nudged by the work I am doing supporting educators in their inquiry projects in a Graduate Program entitled, Supporting Diverse Learners. I have been explaining the importance of supporting their students in developing self-advocacy skills, and I have been sharing what I am learning from supporting my son, H, in his own self-advocacy journey.

I have been reinforcing that before they can advocate for themselves, their students need to develop self-understanding and a way to express that understanding. And then I have gone on to explain – particularly to the special ed teachers – that they will have to advocate within the school for these children. They will need to support the other teachers in developing the understanding to, in turn, support these students in their journey to advocate for themselves.

We have to be willing to ignore tone… and instead focus on intent.

Here’s the thing – sometimes when a child like H is stressed or overwhelmed and doing all that he can do to keep it together – and then is able to say what it is he needs – well, in that moment – very often the tone of his communication could be interpreted as rude or abrupt. This is difficult because I think adults have a tendency to just hear and respond to the inappropriate tone – instead of hearing the message.

I suspect we assign tone completely too much power:


For many adults, this means that there exists unspoken rule or hierarchy of socially acceptable etiquette in terms of speech – and rude tone has the power to completely cancel out our willingness to listen.

I think we often to respond to the tone more quickly than to the content – and for our students with social communication issues – we need to be aware of our own tendencies to make unhelpful judgments. We, as educators (and parents too), need to open ourselves up to being more aware of the intent of the communication.


My son is learning to speak up for himself… but many times when he is at the point when he needs to do so, he has already begun to feel stressed or overwhelmed by a situation. At these times – H (and others) may not be able to state what he needs sweetly and politely.

H may not yet sing his advocacy…  but just because he cannot sing his words… doesn’t that mean his voice should not be heard!

I know this is not easy.

Admittedly, I struggle still… and I am willing to reveal that I am perhaps – or rather, likely – a hypocrite.  It seems a tricky messy thing to unwind the tightly tangled ball of teenager from self-advocate. It is a developmentally appropriate desire to disengage and to separate from one’s parents and begin to seek identity wholly one’s own. Rebellion – and sometimes cheekiness are typical – if rather unappreciated – but this is different from advocacy. H is working on the delineation of self; where he leaves off and others begin. At the same time, it is in this very space where he interfaces with the world, where he is working to embrace with pride the things about him that make him different, and have the self-understanding to be able to self-advocate.

Aaaack!! I certainly haven’t got this one figured out…  but I am determined to work to honour the message of my child and strive to listen beyond the tone…

Related Posts:
The link between self-understanding and self-advocacy


30 Days of Autism is a project designed to fight stigma, promote civil rights, and increase understanding and acceptance for those who process and experience the world differently.

© Leah Kelley, Thirty Days of Autism, (2013)

About Leah Kelley, Ed.D.

Leah Kelley, M.Ed, Ed.D., Writer, Consultant, Activist, Speaker, and Educator, working with Teacher Candidates at UBC. Authors blog: 30 Days of Autism. Projects support social understanding, Neurodiversity paradigm, Disability Justice, and connecting Disability Studies in Education(DSE)to Educational Practice. Twitter: @leah_kelley Facebook: 30 Days of Autism: Leah Kelley
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8 Responses to Welcoming Dissent… Self-advocacy, the communication hierarchy, and rethinking tone

  1. Colin Bowman says:

    Leah, I very much agree that we have to be able to look past tone, in order to get to a person’s intention, intention that can best be read in terms of what an individual is doing to actively realise their self, intention that can be advanced across skill in self advocating.
    Tone is then a reflection or expression of what is going on emotionally, within a person and between people. Such tone is then very powerful and very complex across what takes place between people who are respectively autistically and socially configured and situated. Those who are respectively autistic and social, in practice violate each other routinely, violate each other across the substance of respective identities. Emotion figures hugely in the experiencing of such mutual violation.
    I personally find great life-difficulty in a contextual social subscribing pretty exclusively to its view of things (for example, in the corporate plan the school in which I work has, for just how to care for and educate the autistic students in its charge), such that my alternative and autistically dissenting view runs into distressing headwinds. Given that our school’s students are more versed in things autistic than am I, I look to them to find what life-solutions they have found to this great autistic-social difficulty. What do they do, to keep themselves moving against this headwind, to avoid being brought down by what in this difficulty can see me absolutely frustrated. What they there do can be read in terms of what they do to give themselves self, from out of the jaws of a social-reception of them which, across its intention and tone, would deny them (autistic) self.
    I think that the intention to have self, is fundamental; certainly when an autistically situated person involves themselves in interchange with what and who is social. That social then frustrates the autistically situated person in their recourse to autistically specific methods of securing and having self. I then find that I remember my life experience across the emotions of that frustration; my life-experience data-banks on which I continuously draw, hold emotionally encrypted records. The students I support, I judge to be more powerful autistic warriors than myself, such that their emotionally-encrypted records are richer and more intense than my own. Their life-experiences of the fundamental frustration of being denied self across the way any social works, are greater and richer than mine. Their intention to hold course autistically is stronger than mine. Their encrypted life-experience with its fundamental frustration of self being denied them at the hands of the social, is expressed in an existential tonality.
    Looking past tone, to find the autistic other in terms of their active intention, provides us with an opportunity for useful interchange, and that opportunity can be understood in terms of self-adocacy. However, tone is perhaps the primary expression of a person’s memory of life experience and life understanding, the primary protective carapace, the primary data-bank informing actions of self advocating, the primary evidence we decode in seeking contact with an other.
    Perhaps we have to be able to separate the two, to access the other’s intention; but that intention will always present embodied in tonality, and we will have to constantly return to that tonality to contextualise the intention we abstract.
    In some manner there is a fundamental struggle or even battle going on. The tone of an individual autistic person is an echo of that struggle or battle (for autistic inclusion, for reformation of the social to secure that inclusion). The individual autistic child may proceed as if alone, but in their tone they evidence a crucial commonality of life-experience and intention with their autistic peers.


    • Leah Kelley says:

      Yes… this makes so much sense – if I am reading it with the understanding intended. The tone too has meaning – so that just ridding one of it and making/forcing others join the ‘social expectation of nicety of tone’ may also be a factor in denying their emotional experience. Tone is communication as well – but perhaps a more deeply cumulative or emotive one. Is this what you meant to some degree???

      I may be at the edge of my learning here and I very much appreciate you extending my thinking. I am trying to understand the layers and complexities – and a comment like yours add depths I didn’t yet see.

      Thank you, Colin, for your for your comment and your patience in explaining.


  2. Leah, thank you for such a thought provoking article. On the one hand, your work will help educators better help their students. But students will also need to be aware that, if they are going to self-advocate, they need to know how “NTs” are wired, so that they monitor their own thoughts/feelings and tone when speaking. Easier said than done, but part of growing in emotional intelligence.


    • Leah Kelley says:

      Thank you, Steve. I appreciate you taking the time to comment. I very much agree about teaching my son (and others) about the impact of his movements, tone, actions, words, etc., so that his social understanding continues to increase. And yes… too… if we want to raise our children on the autism spectrum to be emotionally healthy Autistic adults – then we need to examine the paradigm that thus far has had them doing most of the work to ‘fit in’ rather than us doing our fair share to honour and accommodate differences.


  3. m kelter says:

    love this, what a beautiful post Leah, thx so much for these insights!


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