Sarah Wild is headteacher of Limpsfield Grange School, Surrey, which caters for the needs of girls with autism. She shares some amazing insights into a side of the autistic spectrum which is widely misunderstood.
Isn’t autism a boy thing?
Sarah points out that the majority of what we have known about autism is based on the work of scientists about 70 years ago and their study was of young boys. So we have focused on just that one end of the autism spectrum. Girls do make up a minority of those with autism, however.
Sarah says that autism isn’t a disease, it’s just a neurological difference and it can even be positive and people can be really proud about it.
Girls with autism present in very different ways to boys. They might:
- be much more sociable
- be really bothered about relationships
- be friendship-driven from a really early age
- try hard to fit in with the people around them
Girls often exhibit ‘masking’ or ‘camouflaging’ – from around Yr 4 they know they aren’t quite the same as everyone else and it makes them feel isolated and depressed. So they ‘social scan’ – they work out who has lots of friends and how they do it. They examine what a popular girl does, what she wears, how she behaves, what she is interested in and they replicate this. This ‘masking’ means they have deliberately constructed a different version of themselves and suppress their natural instincts and judgements and do what they think other people want them to do.
This doesn’t result in the feedback they want and it’s exhausting so they go home and have melt-downs because which can be traumatic for them and their families. Some autistic women do this all their lives and there can be a severe mental health toll from it.
This behaviour also means that some autism in girls is missed. To counteract this, new diagnostic tools are currently being developed to be more gender-netural and not rely so heavily on the accepted definition of autism based on those original studies of boys.
What should a mainstream teacher be aware of so they can ask the right questions about girls and autism?
There will be some signs, despite autistic girls’ masking. They could be:
- trying hard not to attract attention
- sitting at the back of the classroom
- the last person to laugh at a joke
- exhibiting superficial behaviour
- on the outside of social groups
- struggling in noisy corridors
- struggling in classrooms with too much light
- socially isolated despite the fact that they are trying
- taking high-risk behaviours to the extreme in secondary school because they think that’s what teenage behaviour is
- passive and ‘easily led’
- young for their age
- trying to dominate conversations
Sarah mentions The Autism Girls Forum and the booklet it produced with NASEN – Girls Flying Under the Radar This is written specifically for mainstream practitioners and includes lots of advice on how to identify autistic girls and how to help them.
Why are there not more schools like Sarah’s?
Her school has been in existence since 1953 and has at times not been single sex. Sarah describes it as ‘a throwback’. She thinks if it had been in any other local authority than Surrey it would have been shut long ago. However, she thinks it is highly relevant today.
It works because the girls who are often marginalised and don’t have a voice have a community of people in the school who love, accept, celebrate and understand them. They can be themselves at Limpsfield. If girls are in an environment with autistic boys it’s really easy for them to get overshadowed as the boys can ‘explode’ while the girls ‘implode’. Sarah believes the school can cater well for the needs of autistic girls in ways they couldn’t do if the school was mixed.
If you are a slightly quirky woman with an obsession about rabbits people are not going to entertain that as much as if you are a quirky guy with an obsession about trains.
Can we build more inclusion into the mainstream?
Autistic people really like not being with neuro-typical people because they find it draining. They like the fact that they are in a community of people where they don’t have to explain themselves all the time. Sarah believes that some autistic people can thrive in mainstream settings but we have to look at individual needs and make sure there is a wide-enough range of settings available. It’s not OK that this is the only school of its type in the country.
Often girls put pressure on their parents because they want to be part of the community at Limpsfield. They feel that they will be accepted and therefore can make progress.
Sarah believes that the most important thing they do is to help keep the girls mentally well and as a profession we have to make sure we limit the amount of pressure we transmit to children.
How does the school use animals for positive effect?
After a suggestion from the site manager, Sarah agreed to get some alpacas for the school. Now this has grown to chickens, koi carp, goats, miniature Shetland sheep, dogs and goldfish.
Girls can access the dogs, for example, if they are having a difficult time – Sarah believes that animals just make you feel better. She says that the curriculum has moved in a narrowing, dry direction recently so leaning to care for an animal is a really important skill – in fact, as important as a GCSE in Maths.
Also, the animals have been very useful when talking to girls who are at risk of self-harm. They make conversations about taking care easier. The girls agree they wouldn’t harm the animals so why would they harm themselves? They are as worthy of love and support and care as the animals.
Sarah’s top tips for mainstream teachers to start working positively with autistic learners
- Build a relationship with them
- Find out what their special interest is and talk to them about it
- Make learning as concrete as you can – present the same information in a variety of different ways
There is a lot more detail in the episode so please do listen right to the end.
Books mentioned by Sarah: