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Why Autism Goes Unseen in Girls – And How You Can Spot It

Autism is under-recognised in girls and many mask the condition to fit in, feel safe and gain acceptance – but it takes a heavy toll, says Sarah-Jane Critchley...

  • Why Autism Goes Unseen in Girls – And How You Can Spot It

When you look at Beth, autism is not the first thing that you would think of. She is bright, open, smiley, makes great eye contact and comes alive when you start talking about Harry Potter.

Before long, you start to realise that your entire lesson could be hijacked by her in depth characterisation of Hermione.

She knows the likes and dislikes of all of the characters in the book, what house they belong to at Hogwarts, their family histories and their motivations, yet in the playground, she is completely at sea.

Unless she can persuade other children to join in her specific game, she will struggle to play at all.

Like many autistic girls, she seems on the edge of things, rather than in the centre. She is struggling and yet you wouldn’t know it.

She is working so very hard to fit in, yet at a huge cost. She is overwhelmed and the effort is exhausting.

The story of each autistic girl is as different as the girls themselves – they can be tomboys, girly or geeky – and yet they share huge vulnerabilities.

Masking

Maryam is almost silent in class. She sits at the back watching how the other girls act and will never put her hand up.

Now in Y6, she wears her clothes exactly the way the popular girls do but unlike them, she doesn’t speak or laugh at school and she is the last to be picked for team games.

She has a wide group of people she calls friends, but none of them choose to sit next to her on the school trip.

Like so many other girls, Maryam is masking or camouflaging to hide the fact she is autistic.

It’s a mask she can’t take off because she has to hide to fit in, to feel safe and have the same opportunities as everyone else.

She buries her own identity so that even when she is accepted, she feels that no one knows the ‘real’ her, which takes huge, consistent effort and comes at a very high psychological cost.

She falls to pieces when she gets home. She appears fine at school, but her parents are worried.

It can feel almost impossible to meet the needs of each and every girl, especially when so much of their pain is internal, but if you look deeper, it isn’t hard to spot the child who is deeply unhappy and uncomfortable.

Experienced and empathetic teachers will have almost a sixth sense for the children that are struggling in their class.

Tapping into your empathy can make the difference between a child being able to stay in class, develop their interests and learn the vital skills they need to navigate the confusing social world, and being so stressed they can no longer attend school at all.

It can help you to know that when you create the right classroom environment and get it right for these incredible vulnerable girls, you will be helping all of your pupils – and boys mask, too.

Everyone benefits from having clear structure to the day and their work, and knowing exactly what is expected.

Trust
Ava is amazingly artistic and is a fantastic actress and dancer. Her body communicates emotion in a way that she can’t.

In class though, Ava is a challenging child.

She will blurt out anything that is crossing her mind at the time. She has been in trouble for hitting another child.

What you might not have seen was the child who kept poking her while you were working on the board until she reacted.

Autistic girls who are desperate to fit in can be very trusting, completely miss the social cues and may be manipulated into doing a number of things against their best interests.

This could be anything from giving away their lunch, their money or possessions to a friend, to being manipulated into negative or risky behaviour.

Potential

Although autistic girls come in all shapes and sizes, what unites all of them is a need for support that understands the condition and the specific vulnerabilities that go with being an autistic girl in society.

Unsupported and unidentified autistic girls and women are far more likely to experience mental illness, exploitation and abuse in later life, so it is vital that we provide support to give them the best opportunity to develop into the amazing potential which they hold, for their benefit and for ours.


10 things that might suggest a girl is autistic

  1. She has a very strong sense of justice and will stand up for other people, causes or animals.
  2. Any change to the class or school routine leads to a difference in her behaviour (she may lash out, go silent, or become ill).
  3. She either avoids (or seeks out) loud noises, strong smells, flavours and textures.
  4. Trying new foods is impossible for her, and she hates the noise and busyness of assembly and lunch in the hall.
  5. She gets into arguments quickly but doesn’t know how to get out of them. She is probably being bullied, but you might only see what she does in response to being picked on.
  6. She has a huge perfectionist streak. Work that isn’t perfect gets screwed into a ball, scribbled out, or done over and over again and never finished.
  7. She has passionate interests and she is the acknowledged expert on the subject. It could be anything – a celebrity, soap opera, book or TV series, animals, or anime series.
  8. She is either alone, very attached to a single person or sits on the edge of a large group so she can be invisible.
  9. She struggles to organise her thoughts and finds it hard to get started. Once she is captivated by something, she won’t want to stop doing it to move onto the next lesson.
  10. She loses her PE kit, forgets her pencil case, lunch, homework and permission slips.

Sarah-Jane Critchley is an autism professional and parent who contributed to Girls and Autism: Educational, Family and Personal Perspectives edited by Barry Carpenter, Francesca Happe and Jo Egerton (£29.99, Routledge). Find her at differentjoy.com and on Twitter at @SarahJaneCritch.

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