21 Tips for Presuming Competence


By Debra Muzikar

In the disability world, presuming competence means that a person with a disability has the ability to think, learn and understand – even if you may not see any evidence that this is the case. Often there is an assumption that autistic people, especially people who are non-speaking, can’t understand what is being said.  When teaching children, it is important that teachers presume that children can learn once we find the way to reach them, rather than assuming they cannot learn because they do not learn as others do.

A highly-recommended resource for Presuming Competence is the Autistic Self Advocacy Network’s Curriculum for Self Advocates

Below are the tips they suggest with a discussion on some and an addition of 3 other tips added.

1. Always ask before giving assistance and let the person tell you what you may do to be helpful.

2. Treat adults as adults. Use a typical tone of voice, just as if speaking with a friend or co-worker. (In other words, don’t talk to adults  like they are babies).

3.In general do not assume a person can’t read, but also don’t assume they can.  (For teachers assume that a student can learn to read even though you may think they don’t have the ability to read.)

4. Speak to the person directly, not the support person or companion  (parent or aide in the classroom).

5.Don’t assume a person who has limited or no speech cannot understand what is being said. People usually understand more than they can express. (don’t necessarily agree with this – my son Kevin has processing issues and can express himself very well, but sometimes does not understand what is being said. It is always good to check in with someone to see if they understand what you are conveying instead of just rambling on.)

6.Never pretend you understand what is said when you don’t! Ask the person to tell you again what was said. Repeat what you understand.

7. Do not try to finish a person’s sentence or cut them off. Listen until they have finished talking, even if you think you know what they might say. (and even if they make take longer to express themselves than you are accustomed to).

8.You might not be able to see someone’s disability. There are many disabilities that are hidden within a person.  (that’s why they call autism an invisible disability).

9. Avoid using stereotypes in your thinking. We all have different personalities and our own ways of doing things. To find out what a person prefers, ask them directly.  (“If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.”)

10. Offer compliments but avoid giving a lot of praise when people with disabilities do typical things.

11. Most people with disabilities want to help others, as well as be supported, and enjoy making a difference in someone’s life. (Just like everyone else)

12. Look for something that indicates a person understands. Respond to any attempt the person makes to communicate.

13. Avoid speaking for others. Encourage a person to speak on their own behalf. If you must restate something, be careful not to change the meaning.

14. Because some people like to please others, it is important to be mindful of your body language, tone of voice, and other gestures that may influence a person’s decision.

15. Have your support of the person be low-key, almost “invisible” to others. Don’t “over support.”

16. Let a person make their own decisions. Don’t take over and make decisions for them. It can be difficult for some of us to make quick decisions. Be patient and allow the person to take their time.

17. Focus on what a person can do. All people want a chance to live a typical life, just like everyone else.

18. Find ways to include a person in a conversation. Do not talk about the person to others as if they’re not there. (This is especially common among parents and their children).

19. Avoid using the terms “low-functioning” and “high-functioning.” Tom Iland writes why this is offensive here.

20. Include people with disabilities in meetings about their own goals. Begin at a young age to include students in their own IEP meetings and have them talk to the teachers about their struggles and how best to accommodate them in the classroom.

21. Remember there is much research about expectations. Children perform to the level of expectations of teachers and parents.


Debra Muzikar is co-founder of the Art of Autism non-profit and currently Secretary of the Board.

Header comic on SuperBComix here has a creative commons license.

0 replies on “21 Tips for Presuming Competence”