As a teacher self-diagnosed with Asperger’s, I know the only way that I was able to leave school with a good set of results was down to the extra support my teachers put in place for me.
Since then, I have spent 12 years working with a wide variety of girls with autism who have been diagnosed, misdiagnosed or undiagnosed.
This is a serious issue. If girls with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) are not supported, they are likely to develop poor self-esteem and mental ill-health due to not being able to understand why they are not seeing the world in the same way as their peers.
Many girls with Asperger's struggle with anxiety due to the meltdowns or shutdowns they may experience when something suddenly changes. They can feel isolated as they may struggle with friendships and other social relationships.
They are also more likely to be victims of bullying as they do things in a non-neurotypical way. They may be outwardly very clever and do well in tests, but not be able to cope when they have to move seats in the classroom nearer "popular students" who seem to have a large group of friends.
The anxiety that can be experienced by girls with high functioning Asperger’s can easily be misdiagnosed as generalised anxiety disorder. The danger of this is that the treatments that are offered for this will not always suit the ASD brain.
Supporting autistic girls
Many girls with ASD also have alexithymia, which means that recognising and processing feelings can be very difficult. It can be useful for ASD girls to engage in cognitive behavioural therapy as a way to talk through the main causes of anxiety in their lives and attempt to reprogramme how they respond to them.
However, the availability and understanding of ASD among CBT practitioners can be limited.
That said, there are some practical ways schools can improve how they help girls with Asperger's to make school a safer and more welcoming environment that can, in turn, boost their learning outcomes.
Of course, while teachers may not be in school right now to implement some of the following ideas for helping girls with Asperger's, this is an ideal time for those with a remit in this area to think carefully about the support they provide and if more can be done in this area.
- An exit pass to leave lessons if they are struggling with anxiety.
- A member of staff who they can go to for one-to-one support.
- A quiet place to avoid busy breaks and lunchtimes.
- The option to choose who they work with during paired or group tasks.
- Giving them access to counselling services if they are feeling anxious about being different.
- Giving them opportunities to socialise as part of a small group with common interests.
- Teach them coping strategies and support them with any bullying they may face as a result of their different way of thinking and acting.
- Encouraging good self-care routines (good sleep hygiene, healthy diet, etc).
- Having a tutor who can talk them through any changes to routine coming up in the next school week to alleviate any anxiety that could occur.
- Keeping close contact with her parents so that you can discuss any changes to behaviour.
- Talking to them about boundaries and issues about consent in sexual relationships.
- Giving them conversations about how to maintain healthy friendships.
- Give them opportunities to learn about their special interests.
- Signpost them to useful resources/blogs about girls with Asperger’s so they can learn more about the condition.
Ultimately, girls with Asperger’s need to have their traits recognised at an early age during their education to ensure the appropriate support is given.
This should ensure that when they leave school they will have the strategies to cope with social situations alongside a great set of GCSE results.
If we are only supporting the academic progress of students with Asperger’s we are not preparing them for difficulties they may face in later life when there may not be as much support available.
Amy Sayer is a secondary school teacher and writer whose book on staff mental health in schools is to be released later this year