Posted on: March 10, 2020
View a recording of the webinar hosted by Victoria Honeybourne below on the topic of 'Supporting girls & young women with Asperger’s / autism in mainstream educational settings'.
Victoria also answer some burning questions on girls and autism that were not addressed in the broadcast below.
With regards to learning is there an issue with doing work as in "homework" as compared to completing work in school. Home is for relaxing?
Yes, homework is often cited as an area of difficulty for some students on the autism spectrum. There can be several reasons for this. Firstly, some students may have difficulties with aspects of their learning which makes homework difficult – they might not have understood the topic or the task they have to do. Other students on the autism spectrum can have difficulty with ‘executive functioning’ – basically the skills required for planning, organising and problem solving. Some might become very anxious about not knowing what to do. To combat these issues you can ensure that written / visual instructions are given which are clear and explicit. Teach students explicitly how to plan and organise themselves (lots of templates are included in my book) and check that students have understood the work.
The main difficulty, however, is often the one you have mentioned – the fact that school is for learning and home is for relaxing! This can be difficult for some students with fixed thinking styles to understand. Also remember that some students might be exhausted after being around people during the school day so need time to recover from this. Schools could try proving homework clubs where homework can be completed in a purposeful atmosphere and at a set time. Also remember only to set homework when it is needed and relevant. Autistic students in particular will not respond well to being given homework which is irrelevant, meaningless or not even collected in!
If girls with high functioning ASD are able to copy social behaviour in certain contexts, and therefore "cope" socially, do we as professionals need to try and identify them as having ASD? Will a diagnosis help?
This is a really interesting point. I think it is important that a distinction is made between ‘social skills’ and ‘autism’ (i.e. connecting differently to other people and interpreting the world differently). Autism is not simply a lack of social skills. There are many people with poor social skills and weak social understanding for a variety of reasons. These skills can be taught and, as discussed in the webinar, some girls on the autism spectrum can appear to have good social skills and appear to be able to cope socially.
It is, to a certain extent, important to teach effective social skills as this can increase an individual’s confidence if they know that they have the tools to cope in various situations. However, autism goes far deeper than this, and just because some girls may be able to cope ‘on the surface’, does not mean that they are coping inside, or connecting in the same way as others. It might be that interventions which focus only on developing ‘social skills’ are not the most important for some girls on the autism spectrum.
For some females, gaining a diagnosis can support them to achieve the self-acceptance which is necessary for them to gain a sense of wellbeing and to be able to cope ‘on the inside’ as well as ‘on the outside’. That said, seeking a diagnosis is a personal choice, and some individuals choose not to. I think the most important thing for schools to take on board is the fact that we should look beyond the labels. If a student needs support with their self-esteem, or social skills, or learning, or friendship skills, or whatever, then give them this support as early as possible. Please don’t wait until a formal diagnosis of something has been given. Meet the needs, not the label.
Is there a link between autism and school refusal particularly with girls?
Some girls on the autism spectrum do end up as school refusers and various reasons are given – being bullied at school, overwhelming anxiety, and having no friends are some of the most often cited. School can be a difficult place for some students on the autism spectrum (and for many other students too!) so it is very important for schools to deal with any issues at a very early stage.
What are the best intervention to help girls and young women open up and express their emotions or learning emotions?
Individual students are likely to benefit from different interventions. There are several commercial programmes available which help to develop emotional intelligence. Some students may enjoy expressing and managing their emotions through art, drama, music or journaling – all of which have been shown to have therapeutic benefits. There are other ideas and resources detailed in my book.
Any advice on how best to fit direct input into the school day, while not letting them miss out on mainstream lessons?
This is a very important point. Girls on the autism spectrum may need additional input such as counselling, speech and language therapy or other intervention. You do not want to take them out of too many mainstream lessons as they may resent missing favourite subjects, and missing out on work and falling behind might increase their school-related anxiety even further. The ideal scenario would be to integrate some of the additional work needed into mainstream lessons – there are often many opportunities in the mainstream curriculum and in everyday teaching, for example, which can be used as opportunities to develop social and emotional understanding. Ensuring that all staff are aware of students’ individual needs can support this taking place. Alternatively, some schools use tutor time or assembly time for interventions to take place.
Are females are more likely than males to mask their autism difficulties in environments they do not feel comfortable in? What can schools to do better support and identify the growing needs to girls with autism? How can schools better support girls with autism in social situations?
Yes, research suggests that females are much more likely to be able to mask their difficulties, as was mentioned in the webinar. As for what schools can do, the first thing is to raise awareness among staff, particularly SENCos. There are many things schools can do to make their environments and learning more autism-friendly (see my book for a more comprehensive list). Then schools also need to support students to develop their self-esteem and self-awareness, as well as teaching things like social understanding and conversational skills explicitly if this would help.
Will you release a second edition of your book covering puberty and coping in later years of primary school?
I would love to write more on autism! You are right, there are so many other topics which can affect girls of this age. In this book I’ve prioritised developing self-esteem and self-awareness (as I consider this to be fundamental to every aspect of wellbeing) and then focused on various aspects of academic learning and school life. There are definitely many more topics that could be covered in a sequel!
- Victoria Honeybourne