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Understanding and supporting autistic girls in school
Sarah-Jane Critchley explains why girls are often missed out, misdiagnosed or missing from education and what adjustments can help them in school
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Most autistic women and girls are identified later in life. To get a diagnosis of autism as a girl, you must be showing much stronger autistic traits than a boy does. Non-verbal girls or those with intellectual disability are identified earlier.
It is very likely that you will have autistic girls in your class who do not yet have a diagnosis.
Autistic girls and women are also frequently misdiagnosed with other conditions so girls struggle far too long and unsupported in school. This lack of understanding makes them especially vulnerable to underachievement, emotionally based school avoidance, bullying and exploitation.
What to look for
Every autistic girl is different, but often they fall into two different camps: determined and loud, or reserved, nervous and watchful.
- She has a strong sense of justice and will stand up for other people, causes or animals, even if it is hard, or makes her unpopular.
- Any change to the class or school routine leads to a difference in her behaviour (she may lash out, go silent, or become ill).
- She is a rigid, black and white thinker.
- New foods are impossible for her, and she hates the noise and busyness of assembly and lunch in the hall.
- She gets into arguments quickly but doesn’t know how to get out of them. She’s probably being bullied, but you might only see what she does in response to being picked on.
- She has a huge perfectionist streak. Work that isn’t perfect gets screwed into a ball, scribbled out, or done repeatedly and never finished.
- She knows way more than you would expect about a subject. Girls often love celebrities, soap operas, book or TV series, animals, anime or cosplay.
- She’s alone, very attached to a single person, or sits on the edge of a large group so she can be invisible whilst working out what’s OK.
- She struggles to organise her thoughts and finds it hard to get started. Once she’s started, she won’t want to stop or move on.
- She struggles with planning, loses her PE kit, forgets her pencil case, lunch, homework and permission slips.
Many girls and some boys will hide the fact that they are autistic. Being different is not always safe. Many have been masking for a very long time and may not even realise that they are doing it. They do this:
- as a survival skill, so they can fit in
- to be known and accepted by peers, teachers, family and society
- to be compensate for things they find incredibly difficult
- to hide behind how they would like to be seen by others.
Camouflaging comes at a heavy price. It takes huge emotional and physical effort and is implicated in higher rates of depression and suicide in autistic people.
Change is not good for autistic people. We like things to be reliable and predictable. Many of us struggle to understand and identify cues from bodily cues such as being hungry, tired, angry, anxious or needing to use the toilet. Puberty is difficult for autistic girls who often HATE the fact that their body is changing and find the process deeply unsettling.
Autistic girls and women struggle with periods far more than non-autistic people. She is likely to find it harder to manage:
- sensory issues
- personal hygiene
- organisational skills and academic demand.
- Early identification and support
- Carrying out a sensory audit of the environment
- Acceptance reduces levels of depression
- Show that you value difference through your actions as well as your words
- Positive role models (including autistic teachers)
- ASD Girls Wellbeing curriculum
There are many amazing autistic and neurodiverse women in the media, from the ferocious intelligence of Anne Heggarty from ‘The Chase’ to singer, Florence from ‘Florence and the Machine’ and actor Tylan Grant in Channel 4’s ‘Hollyoaks’. Positive examples to share are vital to help our girls feel valued for who they are.
Acceptance of autism reduces how likely and how severely autistic people are to become depressed. It does not affect the level of anxiety experienced. This is not surprising as anxiety is heavily impacted by the sensory and school environment as well as the social one.
There is no one thing that makes the difference as each girl and each school is different, but there are many things that will make it easier for her to thrive in your school.
- Do a sensory audit of your school with autistic pupils to identify flashpoints for them.
- Make physical adaptations where possible.
- Explore alternative ways of managing sensory challenges with her e.g. allowing headphones.
- Be flexible on adjustments to uniform.
- Allow toilet breaks when needed.
- Many autistic girls struggle to ask for help. Use whole class strategies to check for understanding without making her stand out.
- Consider changing the seating plan in consultation with the girl.
- Look at group learning. Some autistic girls work well in leadership roles, others only cope with one partner.
- Provide structure and predictability in times of change.
- Allow space for pre-teaching to reduce resistance and offset the drive for perfection.
- Model a growth mindset daily to help autistic girls accept that mistakes are an essential part of learning.
- Check your attendance policy does not discriminate against autistic pupils unable to attend through anxiety.
- Include autistic girls (with or without diagnosis) as a vulnerable SEN group in monitoring.
- Adjust homework policies to include additional scaffolding for autistic pupils, such as using your Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) by all teachers to reduce the reliance on organisational skills and executive functioning.
- Include peer mentoring and anti-bullying programmes (such as the KiVa programme) into your anti-bullying policy.
- Hold separate RSE sessions to allow for pre-teaching, extra processing time needed and be clear and explicit.
- Make a ‘safe place’ in school and allow phone calls home for reassurance if requested.
- You are very likely to have unidentified autistic girls masking their difficulties in your school.
- It is vital to create a positive and accepting environment for autistic girls to thrive.
- Each girl needs different adjustments so involve the girl and her family.
Last Updated:02 Feb 2023