On the nature of advocacy

The word “advocate” is used widely in the Autistic community. Within this community it generally refers to a person who publicly speaks out on matters of civil rights. However, there is a much deeper meaning to the word advocate that brings with it an understanding of where the boundaries lie between empowering a person and speaking over a person.

In the context of the law, an advocate exists to not only make a person aware of their legal rights but also to help them understand their rights in a way that empowers them to use their own voice in the fight for fair treatment. While somewhat simplified, this is essentially what statutory advocacy aims to do.

What we see most commonly is community or group advocacy. This is because within the Autistic community, people are generally broadly representing the Autistic demographic and not a particular individual. This differs from statutory advocacy because you are representing a large group rather than an individual. A balance has to be struck between diverse viewpoints and approaches.

Regardless of what form your advocacy takes, it’s important to have boundaries. First and foremost, within the Autistic community, advocates are most likely peers and not external agents. This means that we need to know our limits and protect our well-being. Advocacy is at its most effective when the advocate is in good form.

You need to address your own motivations and drives. Autistic people have a wonderful sense of justice and often a desire to protect others. The problem is that this can manifest as somewhat of a saviour complex. When we are more concerned with rescuing someone than empowering them to help themselves, we can end up stepping on their rights ourselves.

At its core, advocacy should aim to become redundant. An advocate should empower a person or group to be able to speak for themselves. The overall goal is to create a knowledge exchange that facilitates the person a group receiving advocacy to self-advocate.

This is something we forget to often. We are not speaking for people. We are sharing knowledge and building confidence. We are creating environments and spaces that lift a person up and prevent them being spoken over.

As advocates, it is not our job to tell someone else’s story. It’s our job to empower them to communicate their story in whatever way works for them.