The public is increasingly aware of autism, but what many struggle with is an understanding that it needn’t result in the isolation of a child. Education Officer Aileen White shares her advice for ensuring all children are included in activities, and explains why autism can be harder to identify in girls.
As the writer of this article I have a dilemma, do I write ‘girls and women with autism’, ‘girls and women on the autistic spectrum’, ‘autistic girls and autistic women’ or ‘girls and women that are neurodiverse’? As you read this I suspect you will have an opinion about this and so will the girls and women who are affected by this on a daily basis. For this article I will use the phrase ‘on the autistic spectrum’.
However, there is a much bigger dilemma with fundamental implications: that many women and girls are not diagnosed or don’t even realise that they might be on the autistic spectrum. The assessment tools for autism are predominantly designed to diagnose boys and men and it is now being recognised that girls and women on the autistic spectrum often present in a different way.
Children tend to learn from an early age how girls ‘should behave’ and these social conventions mean that girls on the autistic spectrum learn tools of mimicking and camouflaging so that people don’t pick up on their difficulties. However as they focus on this masking, it can create a build-up of anxiety and exhaustion that causes outbursts and upset at home. This can then lead to secondary mental health difficulties.
Some girls on the autistic spectrum find it much simpler and easier to play with boys and are drawn to stereotypical boys’ games which tend to be more logical in rules and structure. They may also find it easier to befriend those who are younger or older than their peers.
The logical nature of engineering – with its base in maths and science – can make it very appealing to girls on the autistic spectrum. To know in advance what is required, to be given measurable success criteria and to know how long they have to complete a task can feel very grounding.
When it comes to running our own engineering activity sessions, we take a number of steps to help all participating children feel more secure. We are sharing them here because they can be especially helpful to children on the autistic spectrum:
- Use someone’s name when addressing them so they know you are talking to them. You may want to ask all participants to wear a sticker with their name on to help you do this.
- Recognise that the children may be very shy. Don’t try to force them to join in, instead invite and offer a variety of opportunities to join in in their own time and their own way.
- When asking questions, provide thinking time and ask them to feed back afterwards. Supplying questions in advance can help reduce anxiety. You can even give the children options for how to feed back – in person, in writing or through a team spokesperson who enjoys public speaking.
- Let everyone know if something is a test or a time of playful experimenting, this may help reduce the pressure to be perfect.
- Be specific about what is a ‘rule’ and what is a preference. This can help provide clarity about what has to be done and what is optional. Recognise that those on the autistic spectrum may take this very literally at all times.
- Publicly let everyone know they can ask for help and can ask for what they need. Let them know how to do this appropriately at different times (they might need to wait until you have stopped presenting or use a card that requests in writing what they need), to reduce feelings of fear in asking for help. This includes things like asking to go to the toilet.
- Take parental requests seriously if they explain that their child needs something to help them. This might be a simple as giving extension tasks for the home to the parent rather than the child. The parent can then introduce the child to these at a time when they are more relaxed.
- Let everyone know the flow of an activity in advance so they can get a sense of structure and pattern in what they are doing.
- Let everyone know the amount of time available to do an activity and then provide regular time checks, including a ‘five minutes left’ then ‘one minute left’ reminder.
- Recognise that transitions between activities can be a very stressful time and can create anxiety, especially if a child is worried they haven’t finished fully or are sad an activity is over. Reassure them it’s okay not to finish or let them know when there will be another time to complete things.
- Use visuals to communicate about the pattern of the day or activities. Preferably create these so they can be reordered and moved around to illustrate when things might change.
- Recognise that our language can be full of idioms (such as ‘pull your socks up’ or ‘to crow about’) and try to simplify what is said to be more literal, or at least translate the idiom and its meaning.
- Recognise that academic and emotional intelligence are different things. For example, a child may be fascinated by the engineering marvel that was demolished by a storm, but extremely traumatised by watching or reading about how people were hurt and killed when it fell down.
- Provide signposts to other resources to help children with a ‘special interest’ in engineering. Recognising that they may know more than you will enable you to wonder and marvel with them as they teach you things.
In our engineering challenges with children we encourage the youngsters to work in teams and bring out each other’s strengths. For example, if someone is good at writing then they can scribe, someone good at maths can do the measuring. Recognising we are all different can be the key to helping each other flourish. Recognising that a girl or woman on the autistic spectrum may need different things to you can help her shine.
When listening to women and girls on the autistic spectrum I notice they use labels about themselves and they notice the labels given them by others. As a guide for helping a person feel heard it is good practice to mirror how they ‘label’ themselves, and ask them how they would prefer you to talk with them. For some women, their autism is such a way of life that they actually identify as being autistic and might say “I am autistic”. For others they recognise that they present in some ways on the autistic spectrum and say they have some autistic traits. Mirroring is a good way to help someone feel heard and asking what someone needs is a good way to help someone feel valued. This is something we can all do in any setting in life. Of course, you can just call them their name and not label beyond their name at all.
The National Autistic Society: www.autism.org.uk
Help 4 Aspergers www.help4aspergers.com
Spoon theory – for managing energy levels and reducing burnout https://butyoudontlooksick.com/articles/written-by-christine/the-spoon-theory/
What Every Autistic Girl Wishes Her Parents Knew Paperback ISBN-10: 0997504528
Aspergirls: Empowering Females with Asperger Syndrome ISBN-10: 1849058261