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How autism affects girls and their social relationships

The landscape of female friendships can be tough to negotiate for anyone – but girls with Autistic Spectrum Condition often have the wrong map altogether…

Felicity Sedgewick
by Felicity Sedgewick
FREE, BITE-SIZED CPD Great ways to help autistic pupils

Girls with ASC can have social behaviours and friendships that look very different from both those of autistic boys and non-autistic girls.

For example, girls may mimic the behaviours, interests and even speech patterns of people they are friends with in an attempt to fit in and to be accepted. They may also memorise information about their friends’ interests, or learn ‘scripts’ so that they can talk to new people.

Girls with ASC may become fixated on one person in particular, and focus on making that person their best – and only – friend. This can be very intense for both people and can sometimes lead to a falling-out.

Girls with ASC find recognising and managing conflict much more difficult than non-autistic girls do, impacting on their ability to repair and maintain friendships.

Alternatively, some girls will form many casual friendships, but not stick to one group, and have no close friends with whom they spend most of their time.

Guiding hands

It can be difficult for staff to support the social lives of ASC students alongside their studies, but it is a crucial aspect of school life and personal development.

Girls with ASC may take literally whatever is said to them, leaving them vulnerable to being manipulated; their less developed social awareness can leave them open to gossip and exclusion.

It is important for school staff to notice these behaviours and to intervene or explain.

Girls who have just one or two very intense friendships may need help widening their circle and understanding why this matters.

Explaining that most people have several friends so that no single person gets overloaded or bored, and helping them find other young people with shared interests, can be a good form of support.

Girls who appear to be friendly with almost everyone, but who have no close friends, may need support in spending more time with peers. However, they may be happy with their less demanding, casual friendships.

The best course of action is to let each girl choose what sorts of friendships she prefers and to try to help her make and keep the friends she wants to have.

Parental guidance

Carrie Grant, mother of three girls with ASC, singer, vocal coach and TV presenter talks to nasen about raising girls with ASC.

Like most parents with girls on the spectrum, particularly the high functioning end, we’ve had the usual comments, “Are you sure she is autistic? She makes eye contact?” and “But she seems normal.”

What my girls carry is an overwhelming level of unseen anxiety. Their daily minefield of worries takes up a large portion of their headspace, and the concentration required to keep everything hidden takes up anything that is left! With all capacity used up, they are prevented from listening properly or learning effectively.

What can you do to help to lower this anxiety? Recognising it goes a long way; becoming aware of the things that heighten anxiety like homework or the threat of detention. Autistic girls hate getting it wrong – they want to be seen as smart and popular.

My teenager wears make-up, has her skirt rolled over and is obsessed with social media, just like her friends… except that often she does not understand the nuances of teenage girls’ conversation.

Boys can trade information and swap opinions, but girls talk about feelings, finish each other’s sentences and seem to have unwritten rules about how to fit in.

What you can do to help these amazing (but often hidden) girls is to look beyond the exterior and understand that they are often feeling like isolated misfits who will never be like the other girls around them.

Felicity Sedgewick is a PhD student at the Centre for Research in Autism and Education, University College London. This piece has been put together for nasen. Browse more resources for Autism Acceptance Week.

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