Most of the students in my school have autism. All of them are girls. Much of what we think we know about autism is based on male presentations of the condition, but girls on the spectrum are very different.
Girls with autism are motivated by forming friendships. They actively seek out social interactions with other people and can hold reciprocal conversations. While boys with autism tend to explode when things go wrong, girls are more likely to implode and internalize problems.
As principal of a school for girls with communication and interaction difficulties, I am passionate about raising awareness about girls with autism. So what can you do to support these students?
Here are my tips:
- Help them to manage their anxiety
Anxiety is ever-present for girls on the spectrum. Help them to see the link between behavior and anxiety. Does their anxiety make them cry or have massive meltdowns?
They need to understand how their anxiety makes them feel physically, so give them a picture of a body to use as a "body map", which they can draw on to represent how their bodies feel when they are anxious. This makes anxiety concrete and tangible. You can then use this as a prompt for working out strategies to help pupils manage their anxiety before it becomes too big. Do they need to go for a walk or practice some breathing techniques to stay on track?
- Keep change to a minimum
Change is extremely challenging for lots of people with autism, but there are ways to make it less toxic for girls. Share as much information about the day in advance as you can. The "who", "what" and "where" questions are particularly important to address. Tell pupils about any planned changes and write them down. Alterations in staffing, rooms or activities are particularly important.
Keep change to a minimum wherever possible and try to establish routines. Transition times can be particularly hard, so more support at key times like Monday mornings, Friday afternoons and around holiday times might be necessary.
- Make learning concrete
Girls with autism can find abstract concepts difficult to follow. They can also struggle to process auditory information. By making learning concrete, visual and contextual you will help them to succeed.
- Create opportunities to teach social interaction
Although girls with autism seek out social interaction, they also find socializing difficult. Create opportunities to teach social language and model social interaction. Girls with autism need help to navigate friendships and understand peer rules. Put in place some peer-mentoring schemes to support them with friendship and bullying issues.
- Provide emotional support
Girls with autism spend all day trying to keep it together. They want to please people and do the right thing, which puts them under immense mental and emotional pressure. There will be meltdowns when things become too overwhelming. In these cases, be understanding and reassure girls that everything will be OK. Try to deal with difficulties on the day they arise, and remind pupils that each day is a fresh start.
Sarah Wild is principal of Limpsfield Grange School in Surrey, England, which is featured in the documentary Girls with Autism. The school's students have also written a novel called M is for Autism to raise awareness about female autism.