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What is self-advocacy? The dictionary defines Self-Advocacy as “representing one self or one’s views or interest.” How do you become a self-advocate? Well you first have to have some sort of interest in something that is meaningful to you such as physical disability, illness, and/or an intellectual disability, such as autism. Although, there are so many different things you could advocate for besides mental illnesses or physical disabilities. You can also advocate for homelessness, safer streets, and employment, the list goes on and on. Once you have found what you want to advocate for, you can start writing an editorial on the subject. This will help more people learn about your subject and it can fire up other people in your neighborhood, town, or city to start or join a campaign that helps others who are experiencing the same thing as you. You can also write a letter to your state representatives about the subject that is close to your heart, or better yet, you can call them at their office. If you are really ambitious, you can contact your congressperson and persuade them to be on your side for whatever you are advocating for. However, if you are not satisfied with your state representative or congressperson because they are not listening to you, keep writing letters, emailing them, or calling their offices until they finally respond appropriately.

How did I become an advocate for autism? Well I am one of the millions in this country that is on the Autism spectrum. I had joined a local adult autism support group many years ago. Our leader of the group asked for ways our group could become more recognizable in the Greater Harrisburg, PA area. I volunteered to start contacting important people who work in the autism field, as well as our state and local representatives. So, at the very beginning of this, did I know I’d be able to find someone to be a guest speaker at one of our monthly meetings? The answer would have been “no” but luckily, someone answered my email immediately and accepted the invitation to be a guest speaker. The rest is history. Since then, I have accumulated a vast guest speaker contact list. I have been doing this for many years now and each time I find a new guest speaker it is a feather in my cap, as the saying goes. Self-advocacy takes a lot of hard work and years of dedication. I try to be the voice of the voiceless in the adult world of autism. In my wildest dreams, I never expected to be in the position I am today with how far my advocacy work has gone. But so much has happened and I have even impressed people enough, that in 2017, I earned the Dennis O’Brien Autism Advocacy award. That was really the start of my self-advocacy career and I haven’t looked back since!

Later in 2021, I was asked to be a self-advocate for what was called “Autism and the Courts.” This is forum that was put on by Nina Wall, the Director of the Bureau of Autism supports and Special populations, and PA Supreme Court Justice Kevin Dougherty. I asked them both as guest speakers for my other self-advocacy group. Dougherty was so impressed with my work in my adult group, that we got a personal tour of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. Now what does this have to do with Self-Advocacy? If it was not for my work in autism and leading our adult ASD support group, we would not have had the opportunity to visit the Supreme Court.

In closing, blogging as a self-advocate has been an interesting part of my autism journey so far. It’s continuing to help me become a well-respected advocate in the state of Pennsylvania. Outside of this, I have worked hard to keep my name in good standing in the Pennsylvania autism community at large. I am choosing to do this in memory of my eldest sister, Suzanne, who passed away suddenly last October while I was at a disability event for my group. She was the one person in my family who I could always count on to be in my corner for continuing my autism journey. She was also by my side when I received both of my advocacy awards. I promise to keep doing my advocacy work in her memory.

Thomas Hassell

Thomas is 62 years old and has spent the past few decades involved in autism-related social/support groups among other organizations and has become a well-known self-advocate throughout Pennsylvania. For the past 15 years, he’s led a group called “Spectrum Friends” that helps people with autism come together, listen to guest speakers, make new friends, and go on fun field trips. He’s also won and been nominated for multiple disability/autism advocacy awards for his work within the community. Thomas continues to strive for greatness every day and is looking forward to sharing his life story and amazing experiences through ASDNext blogs!

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