The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

Gareth D Morewood

Autistic girls: my steep learning curve

To better support girls with autism, we need more research. Here's what I've discovered so far. 

Previously I have written about my growing understanding of autistic girls and more recently I have had the opportunity to learn further from our pupils and specialist staff. I never consider myself to be ‘expert’ in anything, and most certainly not with regard to autistic girls; I feel I have so much more to learn and find out. In this post I will try and share some of the key things I’ve learned to date and hope this helps colleagues in the journey towards greater understanding and improving outcomes for pupils in their schools.

Why are things different for girls?

Some of the key learning points for me have been that for autistic girls, challenges often present very differently to boys. For example: difficulties understanding unwritten rules and expectations, understanding and managing anxiety, along with difficulties navigating the increasingly complex social world of school and life.

Girls’ skills in masking these difficulties and demonstrating age appropriate interests may make it more difficult for their needs to be identified in relation to current diagnostic criteria (Mandy et al. 2012). 

School staff and parents/carers with less knowledge of how autistic girls present may be surprised that someone who appears able, can participate in reciprocal conversations and use appropriate affect and gestures may have a diagnosis of autism (Gould & Ashton-Smith, 2011).

Therefore, getting a diagnosis, and perhaps most importantly, the specific challenges faced by autistic girls, can and are routinely missed (Honeybourne, 2015; Moyse & Porter, 2015).

When girls’ needs are identified, there is also a lack of specific guidance on what should be put in place to meet their needs, although there has been some general guidance emerging recently (Girls and autism: flying under the radar, NASEN, 2016).  This highlights how there is much more work needed in understanding and supporting these pupils in our schools.

In essence much more research and practical information is needed, which is why I was delighted to have the opportunity with colleagues from the University of Manchester to consider the real experiences of autistic girls in relation to our saturation model, the outcomes of which will be published in 2019.

Coming in 2019

Morewood, G., Tomlinson, C. & Bond, C. (in press, 2019) 'Meeting the needs of autistic girls at secondary school' in Hebron, J. & Bond, C (Eds). Educating girls on the autism spectrum: developing an integrated approach. London, Jessica Kingsley.

What are the specific challenges?

There are many current challenges with regard to research and specific information.

  • Limited research about autistic girls.
  • The fact that the number of girls in special schools/PRUs is small and under-represented.
  • There are limited opportunities for girls to develop appropriate peer relationships with other girls
  • Often girls face the same academic challenges as boys but are not as vocal as boys – they will not ask for help and will try to hide any difficulties. 

These factors all add weight to the existing landscape and provide opportunities for pupils to be ‘missed’ and ‘anonymous’ in some settings.

Key issues to consider and improving outcomes

Some of the key issues that present for autistic girls are around friendships and relationships, learning and communication, interpreting the world and in recognising the positives (Honeybourne, V., 2015).

When I consider what we can do to improve outcomes for autistic girls in school, I often think to previous research I have been involved with and what makes a good investment in learning.  Some common themes appear from this work, but also from talking to some of our pupils at school.  When research matches ‘lived experiences’ I’d suggest that there is a good likelihood that this knowledge helps us to improve the educational experiences for some of the learners with whom we work.

One of my favourite phrases is ‘bringing structure to the unstructured’; echoing our work on interventions, providing a range of activities for pupils at break and lunch times can make a significant positive impact for pupils during the school day.

Another fantastic personal analysis that one of our pupils mentioned was when she said: ‘make us feel good about ourselves’; ‘help us to accept that this is the way we are’; ‘show us why misunderstandings have occurred without judging us’; ‘allow us to have our own goals, targets and hopes, not ones that have been imposed by the school or other people’.

Truly understanding that each pupil is an individual is an important starting point; grasping the concept of personalisation would appear to be key.

Other examples that have seen a positive impact for autistic girls include:

  • providing clear guidelines for group work – including allocating specific roles and make expectations clear
  • making it ‘ok’ and ‘normal’ for students to use a quiet space when they need some time alone
  • allowing and encouraging different ways of communicating and learning in the classroom (through discussion, writing, video, one-to-one etc.)
  • providing quieter ways of learning, and offer more time
  • mean what you say and say what you mean – have clear and consistent rules and expectations
  • use sensory profiles of a type and level of detail relevant to the needs of individual pupils, ensuring these are regularly reviewed and used to inform curriculum delivery. 
  • adopting a respectful language policy, which supports positive and inclusive practice.

The best thing educators can do for autistic girls is to find out about them, as individuals.  Allow girls to work to their strengths, and encourage an atmosphere which embraces difference, making it the norm to be unique.

‘We need schools where difference is valued and where there is less emphasis on conformity and greater focus on harnessing strengths in order to enable all, staff and students alike…to be the best they can become.’ (Professor Rita Jordan)

First hand experiences

I often say ‘don’t take my word for it’; and was fortunate enough to chair an annual review for a Year 11 pupil this week who articulated her experiences so powerfully, and these matched many of the main points of my growing understanding of autism and girls. So to finish off, here are some quotes from the review (published with permission): real lived experiences and important learning points for us all.

This young lady was excluded from her primary school, but has thrived over the last few years. Working with her in planning a pathway into post-16 provision and adulthood has been nothing short of inspirational. Here are some of the things that have been important to her.

English: ‘I work independently in this lesson because I have built up a relationship with my teacher and I know that I can go to him if I need somebody.’

Maths: ‘I am independent in it. Sir has brought me up (to the front of the class) from the start in September to answer maths questions even though sometimes I don’t want to, but it’s brought my confidence up a lot.’

Social times: ‘I normally have lunch in the cafes and then go to the quads with my friends, especially the quiet quad. It is relaxing, and I chat to friends and teachers on duty.’

French: ‘I love French, this is my favourite lesson. My teacher started when I did. She is such an amazing teacher. I answer questions in French and have confidence to speak to Miss; she is very caring and can always cheer me up if I am upset.’

‘I am looking forward to college and feel I am ready to be more independent as I’m nearly independent in everything already!’

References and Further Reading

Bond, C., Symes, W., Hebron, J., Humphrey, N. & Morewood, G. (2016) Educating Persons with Autistic Spectrum Disorders - A Systematic Literature and Country Review. NCSE Research Reports No.20. Trim: National Council for Special Education.

Gould, J. & Ashton-Smith, J. (2011) Missed diagnosis or misdiagnosis? Girls and women on the autism spectrum, Good Autism Practice Journal, 12, 34–41.

Honeybourne, V. (2015) Girls on the autism spectrum in the classroom: hidden difficulties and how to help. Good Autism Practice Journal, 16, 11-20.

Mandy, W, Chilvers, R, Chowdhury, U, Salter, G, Seigal, A. and Skuse, D. (2012).Sex differences in autism spectrum disorder: evidence from a large sample of children and adolescents. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 42, 7, 1304-1313.

Marshall, T.A.  (2014). I Am Aspiengirl: The Unique Characteristics, Traits and Gifts of Females on the Autism Spectrum. Australia: Tania. A. Marshall.

Morewood, G. D., Humphrey, N., & Symes, W. (2011). Mainstreaming autism : making it work. Good Autism Practice, 12(2): 62-68.

Moyse, R. & Porter, J. (2015). The experience of the hidden curriculum for autistic girls at mainstream primary schools. European Journal of Special Needs Education, 30, 187-201.



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