Autism & Girls
What does autism in girls look like? Quite simply it looks really different.
Autistic girls can appear to find social interaction reasonably easy on a superficial level. When they are younger they can mimic socially appropriate behaviour, without understanding what they are doing or why they are doing it. This can have the effect of masking their difficulties.
Autistic girls are often aware of and feel the need to socially interact. They can join in play but can be led by their peers. They may not initiate social contact but will react to it, and can appear socially passive. The girls can feel that they would like to have friends but do not understand how to make friends. This can cause lots of unhappiness, and can create feelings of frustration and isolation.
Recognising facial expressions or working out what someone really means can be difficult for autistic girls, making it hard for them to read a social situation. This can mean that people’s responses to them are surprising and bewildering. Appropriate social communication can be difficult, with the girls having little or no understanding about social hierarchies or social rules. This can result in autistic girls speaking to adults as though they were their friends, and not changing their language to suit the social situation they are in.
Often autistic girls have a great imagination, and can be good at pretend play. They can spend a long time indulging in elaborate imaginary worlds, which can be complex and full of detail, and can be sustained and developed over long periods of time. Their fantasy world can dominate play; the girls might be able to talk about their imaginary world in depth. Sometimes when life is challenging the girls can spend more time in their imaginary world than in the real world, as this is a mental place of safety for them, and their control over their imaginary world is comforting.
Autistic girls often have special interests. When they are young these interests can include age appropriate topics such as horses or animals, boy bands or certain books or films. This in itself it not unusual.
It is the intensity of their interest and how long the special interest lasts that will be different.
As neurotypical girls (these are girls without autism) move on to other areas of interest, autistic girls often do not. This causes gaps to appear between their social development and that of their peers, often resulting in them becoming increasingly socially isolated as areas of common ground disappear.
Sensory needs can also add to a complicated picture.
Autistic girls may be particularly sensitive to noise, bright lighting or touch; may hate wearing tight clothing or particular fabrics; or conversely, may love super tight clothes, or need to have their hair tied back in a tight ponytail every day.
A high level of anxiety is common among autistic girls. The world can be a confusing and unpredictable place. To minimize this, the autistic girls may need to exert a high level of control on their environment and the people in it. This can result in quite ritualised behaviour, inflexible routines and meltdowns when unplanned events occur.
Autistic girls often want to please, and will spend all day at school trying very hard to do the right thing and be like everyone else.
As a result, home life often suffers as they vent their frustration and anxiety for hours at the end of every day. This is called a meltdown.
What can you do?
- Clear routines and structure at home can be a great help. A timetable of what is happening, with pictures, can help to make an autistic girl feel less anxious.
- Communication is key. Make everything explicit. Explain why you are doing something, or why you talk to someone in a certain way.
- Use egg timers or sand clocks to count down at the end of an activity, so that changing activity or focus does not come as a surprise.
- Try to identify triggers for crisis points. Create a calm box in your home, and if it looks as if anxiety or anger is building, use it to avoid meltdown moments. Fill it with items such as stress balls, toys that light up or reflect light; tactile toys – anything that will help. For older girls listening to music or watching YouTube clips might work as calming strategies.
- Display clear visual rules in your home and refer to them. Talk about emotions as they happen and name them, to help her understand how she feels physically and the label for the emotion she is experiencing.
- Explain, explain, check understanding and explain again!
With the right support and guidance, autistic girls are successful, self-aware, proud, happy and independent young people, able to live and study independently and pursue a variety of careers.
What does autism in girls look like? At Limpsfield Grange we think it looks awesome!