Tania Marshall looks at best practice in supporting the learning of girls on the autism spectrum
Girls and boys with autism present quite differently to one another in school and also across the lifespan. Generally speaking, they differ in terms of the severity of their symptoms, personality, IQ, social skills, sensory processing sensitivities, cognitive profile, disorders and learning disabilities.
All individuals with autism have social communication challenges. In girls in school this usually presents as difficulty working in groups, not participating in class discussions, anxiety when attention is placed on them and often making unintentional social faux pas due to not understanding the unwritten rules of communication and behaviour. Other clues that a student may have autism include: over-apologising, social immaturity with high intelligence, intense special interests, different forms of eye contact, coordination issues and trouble with handwriting. At times, the teacher may view the student as “odd”, whilst not being able to put their finger on what is going on.
There are two main groups that girls with autism tend to fit into. One group is passive, compliant, and has a rule-following attitude; they do not like getting into trouble and are not able to manage stress or conflict well. The other group is outspoken, may correct the teacher (regardless of whether it is socially inappropriate), be overly talkative, tell on other peers and become a school leader. Both groups are often high achievers, perfectionistic, rule followers (sometimes of their own rules), don’t manage conflict or stress well, and are highly sensitive and emotional. Many individuals with autism also have a strong sense of justice, and are rigid in their thinking and adherence to what they think is right.
The way autism presents in girls can range from severe impairment to barely noticeable characteristics. In relation to intelligence, girls with an intellectual disability tend to be more severely affected, whereas girls with higher IQs are characterised by subtler presentations, and are often not diagnosed until they are older, when their social difficulties become more obvious. Their intelligence often masks their issues and they are more motivated to learn the necessary skills to fit in with their peers.
Speech delay is one of the red flags that can be used to identify autism and girls are likely to learn to speak earlier than boys, so their language development may not be seen as delayed; those with a higher IQ can usually read and have advanced speech prior to starting school. Females also have fewer repetitive behaviours than boys with autism and often appear more neurotypical due to their use of language. However, girls with autism do not tend to engage in what they consider “meaningless” chatter and this is one major challenge when they interact with other girls during childhood and adolescence.
Girls tend to be diagnosed later than boys and the diagnostic process is usually longer and more challenging for clinicians. Prior to the age of ten, it can be difficult to pick up a female with autism. Females are typically diagnosed during their teen years and are less likely to be diagnosed than males due to their ability to camouflage, mask and compensate their way through school.
Females have been found to have more social understanding than their male autistic peers. Girls are usually more motivated to be sociable and make friends. Their ability to do this often results in a “social hangover” – a realisation they are “different” – and their social effort and over-analysing of social interaction can predispose them to mental health issues.
Strategies for teachers
A lack of identification, support, and appropriately trained teachers and staff can result in a pupil with autism feeling isolated, depressed and lonely. This can lead to lower grades, mental health issues and a reduction in future opportunities. Early intervention by school staff is crucial and the earlier it is provided, the better the outcome.
Focusing on an individual’s talents, while assisting them with their challenges, is crucial. It is important to take a strengths-based approach to offset a tendency towards self-deprecation, which students with autism often have.
Inflexibility in learning approaches and not understanding an autistic child’s preferred learning style are harmful. Most girls on the autism spectrum who are high-functioning prefer to be self-taught and have a teacher check in on them from time to time. The allowances of an individualised education plan, sensory tools, academic accommodations, support and teachers who understand the world from an autistic pupil’s perspective are vital.
To help those with autism thrive in the school environment, accommodations and provisions could include:
Alternatives to unstructured time
Unstructured time is when pupils with autism may feel most vulnerable, due to the difficulties they have with change; their traits often become more obvious during breaks and lunchtime and they may choose to spend time with school staff or hide away, rather than socialising with their peers. A good alternative is setting up a lunchtime club; this could be a reading or hobby-related club.
Ideas for promoting learning:
- topic-based learning – a great way to teach pupils with autism, as they have a tendency to hyper-focus for long periods of time on special interests
- physical education based around the child’s interests
- pre-teaching content; this enables students to be more confident, understand the information better and improve their status with peers
- teaching touch typing and using dictation apps to help students with autism who often have difficulty with writing and fine/gross motor skills
- small group work and step plans to help students with autism feel more comfortable in groups
- reducing the amount of homework or having supervised homework at school, which can prevent students feeling overwhelmed
- untimed tests/exams and 50 per cent more time to complete their work to help those with processing speed issues
- visual spatial teaching, using visuals rather than verbal instructions and demonstrations
- clear, specific instructions and checking in with the student to ensure they have understood
- a low-arousal and calming environment
- a sensory toolbox (a collection of sensory strategies that can help the pupil with sensory regulation)
- regular breaks.
Ideas for social skills training:
- peer programmes which use small groups of socially aware and trusted students to support and mentor students with autism
- modelling (for example using role play and writing narratives) to explain social situations in a factual way
- providing opportunities for pupils with autism to build friendships with other pupils who have similar interests
- social skills classes, with training around relationships, managing conflict, negotiation and social interaction
- in secondary school, female-specific teaching about hygiene, personal development, gender identity and sex education
- strength and interest-based activities, such as supervised and structured groups, leisure and sporting activities, volunteering or work experience as well as career training, which focuses on talents and interests.
Wellbeing and mental health
Socially, in primary school, girls with autism tend to be included in groups by neurotypical girls and will mimic them. Conversely, boys with autism tend to spend time alone and are more likely to be bullied. Due to the fact that girls with autism appear to be part of a group (although they often flit between groups and stay on the outer edges), teachers may not recognise their social difficulties. Many girls experience depression and anxiety from an early age – as young as six – and this often goes unnoticed.
As girls move into the teen years, the social complexities are more challenging. During these years, girls with autism have great difficulties with their changing bodies, in addition to heightened anxiety due to the combination of having autism, an increase in hormones and increased social challenges.
Teaching girls how to be independent, resilient, assertive and socially aware reduces their vulnerability. The complexity of female relationships in secondary school is overwhelming for girls with autism and the earlier they are taught social skills, the better the outcome. Working on girls’ self-esteem, self-image and building their confidence is also crucial, as is focusing on their emotional and mental wellbeing.
The role of teachers
The current state of autism training among teachers is poor. Worldwide, teachers receive little-to-no autism training at university. Teachers are often role models and mentors for pupils and spend more time with children than their parents; yet, in England, 60 per cent of teachers say they feel inadequately trained to teach children with autism (Support for Children and Young People with Special Educational Needs, NASUWT, June 2013). It is not a surprise that many teachers report being overwhelmed in the classroom and have a high burnout rate due to a lack of training.
The type of teacher a child with autism has can make or break their school experience.
Many girls on the autism spectrum have great difficulties when they start school. The teen years are particularly challenging and this is when many females drop out or are home-schooled. Teachers should learn how to better identify autism (including understanding masking and compensation strategies used by pupils), and how to recognise individual educational needs early on and take a strength-based approach to teaching methods. It is also important for teachers to understand the full breadth of autism conditions, from extreme demand avoidance autism, low-functioning autism, high-functioning autism, Asperger’s syndrome and twice-exceptional (2e) autism to gifted and talented with autism. Teachers who are patient, adaptive and persistent can have a major impact on improving the school experience of a child with autism.
About the author
Tania Marshall, a psychologist in private practice in Australia, is an Autism Ambassador for Education Placement Group, a specialist education recruitment business, and the author of I Am AspienGirl and I am AspienWoman.