For too long the biggest misconception about autism has been that girls don’t have it. In recent years there’s been an increased awareness across society that autistic girls can present very differently to boys, yet getting a diagnosis is still challenging for autistic girls – especially in their primary years.
Many autistic girls at primary school can make conversation, want to have friends and are desperate to fit in and be ‘normal.’ The stereotype of an autistic child being locked into themselves and obsessive doesn’t necessarily apply to autistic primary aged girls, who will be reaching out and trying to socially engage with their peers. Autistic girls can be deceptively good at faking neurotypical behaviours from a very young age, and are experts at hiding in plain sight at school.
Society needs to reimagine what it thinks autism looks like.
‘Masking’, or ‘camouflaging’, is when an autistic person copies someone else’s social behaviour and tries to make it their own, without understanding where it comes from – which can lead to serious problems.
Masking or camouflaging is mentally exhausting and isolating. Autistic girls at primary school are often surrounded by peers who really don’t ‘get’ them. They have to mask their difficulties all day, and pretend to be a different version of themselves. In many cases this leads to meltdowns at home caused by overwhelming and confusing days, with family life becoming very difficult.
This is why understanding, regulating and managing emotions is absolutely crucial to autistic girls’ emotional and mental wellbeing. It’s key to their ability to feel well, happy and together, and to access opportunities. It’s what makes the difference between autistic girls being able to function and attend school each day versus being stranded in their homes by their anxiety.
Supporting autistic girls with recognising and managing their emotions is a long process. Autistic girls will often know that they have ‘behaviours’ that are ‘unhelpful’ or ‘unacceptable’, but won’t understand why they behave in certain ways.
A good place to start is to work with an autistic girl in identifying how certain emotions make their body feel. Once they’ve linked physical sensations with their emotions, together you can work backwards to identify triggers for those emotions. Once the girl understands why certain situations make her feel a certain way, you can work with her in developing strategies for managing her emotional responses. This process can take months, but once the girls understand why they feel the way they do, it’s incredibly empowering.
In terms of general advice for educating autistic girls at primary school, you firstly need to build a relationship with them. Relationships are crucial to autistic girls – they need to feel accepted by you, and that you understand them. Follow this by making their learning concrete, contextual and visual.
Ask them how they’d like to be supported in social situations. Girls will want to engage with others socially, but may find this overwhelming or confusing. Build in quiet space and time each day where the girls can process their thoughts and feelings without being socially ‘on show.’
Finally, create some bespoke sex and relationships education opportunities. This can’t start too early, since autistic girls will have multiple vulnerabilities. These can include wanting to please people, being sociable without understanding context and being concrete literal thinkers, while also being very trusting and often having low selfesteem.
Sarah Wild is the headteacher of Limpsfield Grange School in Surrey, a maintained special school for girls with autism.