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Autistic girls in secondary school: masking, identifying and supporting
Transitioning to secondary school and dealing with the social demands it brings can be overwhelming for girls with autism. Sarah-Jane Critchley explains what you can do to create a safe learning environment
- You have autistic girls in school that are struggling but are masking to survive.
- They are highly vulnerable.
- What you do to acknowledge, involve, and support them can be life changing.
In this article I use ‘autistic girls’ to include all autistic young people assigned female at birth and acknowledge that they are uniquely vulnerable to bullying and victimisation which often starts at school. Autistic people assigned female at birth (however they choose to identify) are less likely to be diagnosed and get the support they need.
You may have a girl in your class who seems to be doing OK, but her parent tells you that she is not ok. She may appear to be doing well, until she starts to get angry and confrontational, challenging your authority.
Maybe she is the ‘perfect student’, but you notice that she is spending all her time alone, is self-harming, hiding from social things at school, poorly a lot of the time, or absent altogether. She may be autistic and really struggling.
Girls are more likely to:
- internalise anxiety and frustration
- be socially motivated
- be misdiagnosed with mental health conditions
- mask difficulties to fit in
- be identified later than boys (often in late teenage and adulthood).
Secondary school transition
Autistic girls live with extreme levels of anxiety in the transition from primary to secondary school. They are going from a smaller, quieter, familiar environment with people they have come to know into significantly larger institutions where they must make and navigate new relationships, social and sensory environments all at once.
Each new relationship adds exponential effort for autistic girls. More is not always good.
- More teachers = weaker relationships.
- More students = more noise.
- More groups = more social relationships to decode and navigate.
- More academic pressure.
- More sensory and social stress.
- More equipment to forget or lose.
- More homework when already exhausted by holding it together at school.
- More bullying and social exclusion.
- More travel to school.
- More pressure on executive functioning skills such as organisational skills and planning.
A good transition plan based on good practice will include the following.
- Bespoke transition plan based on what’s worrying her (e.g., toilets).
- Getting to know her.
- Introducing and providing photos of key adults.
- Making the school familiar through transition days, additional visits, videos by previous autistic students, and transition booklets including information such as site maps and pictures of uniform.
- Year 7 and Year 12 only on site for an induction day.
- Having a buddy system.
- Visiting a ‘safe space’ within the school and practicing how to use it at need.
Secondary school and social demands
Increasing complexity and variety in social relationships is especially difficult for autistic girls. Adjustment is required to go from being at the top of primary school to the bottom of secondary with a whole new set of social hierarchies, social groups, and cliques.
Autistic girls desperately seek certainty. Imagine for a moment that what is happening around you:
- isn’t explained
- follows rules you don’t understand
- is in a language you don’t speak fluently
- is found easy by everyone else.
Masking and camouflage
Autistic girls are not all the same. Some know and are comfortable with their diagnosis. Others will do anything to avoid standing out because their neurotype is not understood or valued. For these girls, their survival depends on fitting in.
The school environment actively encourages masking from early years onwards. Even well-meaning suggestions such as ‘don’t cover your ears, the music’s not that loud,’ have ‘quiet hands’ and ‘sit still’ all risk gaslighting an autistic girl and making her attempts at regulating herself overwhelming.
She is more likely to mask at school then meltdown or shutdown when she reaches her safe place and safe person at home. It is a problem created at school and dealt with at home. Some young people can’t hold it in that long which is when you might see it.
The problem with masking in school is that it:
- is exhausting
- means observing and mimicking others (even if they are not good role models)
- leaves teachers unaware they need support
- means school is less likely to support referral
- reduces awareness and trust in her own bodily experiences
- increases serious mental health problems
- leads teachers to blame parents if they say a girl experiences meltdown or shut down after school because ‘she’s fine at school’
- teaches compliance and increases vulnerability to abuse.
The cumulative effects of being blamed for not being able to fit in make some girls so physically or emotionally unwell that they are in burnout and cannot attend school. Research from Dr Ruth Moyse concluded that the girls were not rejecting learning, but an environment and ethos that were damaging their mental health.
Feeling seen, heard, understood, accepted, and involved even through small adjustments makes a big difference. Structure, predictability, and time to process information creates a sense of safety and makes it possible to learn.
School based trauma?
For some autistic girls, learning is a wonderful, safe place where they can escape the uncertainties of life outside. They may really flourish in the structure of the academic environment and predictability of timetables and progression from one year to another.
The school environment and experiences that happen at, or connected to school, can cause pain and trauma. Autistic people are also more likely to be traumatised. A survey of over 11,000 people by Chris Bonello found 70% had a negative experience in school and over a third of autistic people had PTSD.
Schools with zero-tolerance policies are particularly problematic. These are likely to have issues with girls’ attendance, illness rates or exclusions.
Autistic girls are vulnerable in so many varied ways. They need explicit teaching of many areas that non-autistic teenagers will pick up automatically. They need an experience that:
- values individuality and special interests
- keeps familiar people together
- builds confidence and resilience
- helps them learn safely.
The ASD Girls Wellbeing Toolkit provides an evidence-based 13-week programme to run in school to promote mental, physical, and emotional health.
Last Updated:19 Apr 2023