Tania Marshall, M.Sc. – an award-winning author, psychologist, AspienGirl Project lead for girls with Autism or Asperger Syndrome, and Autism Ambassador for Education Placement Group which specialises in education recruitment – discusses best practice for teaching pupils on the autism spectrum, primarily focusing on high-functioning females…
Characteristics of autism in girls and boys and presentation in school
Girls and boys with autism present quite differently to one another in school – and also across the lifespan. Generally speaking, both 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. How this presents for girls in school is 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 eye contact, coordination issues and trouble with handwriting. At times, the teacher may view the student as ‘odd’; but cannot put their finger on what is going on.
Generally, there are two main groups girls with autism 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 are 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, highly sensitive and emotional. Many individuals with autism also have a high sense of justice, 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 IQ’s are characterised by more subtle 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 diagnose 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 less 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.
In general, 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 10, it can be difficult to pick up a female with autism. Females are typically diagnosed during their teen years and, overall, 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 ‘social over-analysing’ can predispose them to mental health issues.
Early intervention is key
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 decreasing 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.
Education strategies for teachers
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 methods and not understanding an autistic child’s preferred learning style is 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 is vital.
To help those with autism thrive in the school environment, the following accommodations and provisions could include:
Alternatives to unstructured time:
Unstructured time is when pupils with autism may feel most vulnerable, due to difficulties 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.
- Topic-based learning – this is 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, which is based around the child’s interests
- Pre-teaching of 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 as students with autism 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
- Reduced amounts of homework or supervised homework at school so students don’t feel overwhelmed
- Un-timed tests/exams and 50% more time to complete their work due to processing speed issues
- Visual spatial teaching – the use of visuals rather than verbal instructions and demonstrations
- Clear, specific instructions and checking in with the student to ensure they understand
- A low-arousal, calm environment
- A sensory toolbox (a collection of sensory strategies that help the pupil with sensory regulation)
- Regular breaks.
Social skills training:
- Peer programmes which use small groups of socially-aware and trusted students to help, support and mentor students with autism
- Modelling, eg, using role-play and writing narratives to explain social situations in a factual way
- Providing opportunities for pupils with autism to make 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, again, focuses on talents and interests.
Primary versus secondary school
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 difficulty 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.
Autism awareness and training among 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% of teachers say they feel inadequately trained to teach children with autism, according to the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers (NASUWT)*.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 important role of teachers
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 initially starting school. The teen years are particularly challenging and are 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); 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, 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.