The NAS (National Autistic Society) defines autism as a lifelong disability that affects how people perceive the world and interacts with other. They highlight that it is a spectrum condition, which means that no two people with autism are the same. Their autism affects them in different ways, making each day with them a new experience, like it would be with any other human being. Statistics tell us that in the UK more that 1 in every 100 people is autistic. Studies are now suggesting that the numbers might just be higher than previously thought especially because it is felt that girls have been undiagnosed or diagnosed later in life due to a gender biased screening process for autism.
Working within a specialist autistic setting, it is no clearer than on the playground that the girls are truly a minority. Testosterone often runs rampant as young boys strive to assert their control. But today, is not about the boys. It’s about the girls and the way that they are all autistic and in some cases as different to each other as chalk and cheese.
She is probably the reason why I decided to work in a special school. Her smile and her warmth was welcoming. She dished out compliments and reinforced my value as a teacher. In many ways, she doesn’t seem to fit the autistic stereotype. Although she had special interests, it didn’t seem particularly repetitive or overly intense. Not only was she a good communicator with adults but she engaged well with her peers and had a number of close and casual friends. In many ways, typical of her peers. It was clear that she was observant; she would readily pick up on the feelings and emotions of others and responded appropriately to them. Her behaviour never seemed to stem from rules or a literal understanding of instructions. Instead, like so many other students I’ve taught in mainstream settings, her behaviour seemed dependent on relationship, praise and her own internal motivations. In some ways, I had to question: is she even autistic?
Of course, some may argue that she is camouflaging or masking her true feelings. In this case I think this sunny side up is just who she is. Nevertheless, there are other indicators which stand out loud and clear. She loves to be in control. If she feels even for a second that this is being lost, she can descend into stomping, crying and tears. If she is unsure about a task, she locks her head and her pen to her book in the hope that you wouldn’t see her. She hates to admit when she doesn’t know something or feels unsure about it. When asked to present to a group or asked to share her answer in class, she easily reclines back into herself, afraid to speak, afraid to be wrong. There are other difficulties of course with her memory and her handwriting. She struggles tremendously in these areas; however, through over learning and praise, progress though sometimes slow is steady.
None of the areas above worries me because I know that with time and practise and maturity she will continue to improve. But, there is the sense that she is vulnerable to manipulation not necessarily with other girls but with boys. Often she is too trusting, doesn’t fully observe social rules of personal space which in other contexts could create difficulties. Therefore, teaching self-advocacy and e-safety becomes of great importance to ensure that she stays safe.
Chalk forever remains my inspiration and is a constant reminder that all autistic individuals learn and develop. They of course do so at different rates but we can never afford to underestimate and undervalue autistic learners. In many ways, she is atypical of what we would expect of an autistic girl. She shares many of the special interests of her peers. Yet in a rare moment she communicated in a whisper that she loves to watch Shimmer and Shine, a cartoon often associated with younger children. This in many ways highlights her effort to mask her true self in an attempt to fit in and be accepted. Furthermore, she has an intense need to be perfect at all times and in all things. This allows her to be the perfect student, forever attentive, engaged and working hard. This drive as well as her high information processing ability consistently reinforces her high intellectual ability. Of course, after reading more recent research I have come to wonder at the extent to which the drive for perfection masks a feeling that she is not quite good enough. She worries me.
Her anxiety is ever present although it has subsided considerably in the last year. Presently, she is less afraid to fail and ready to try again after she has made a mistake. She is not shy and reclining. Instead, she is always ready to share her ideas and express her feelings. She is often sociable but as with many autistic girls, she engages well with adults or those who are younger but struggles when she has to communicate socially with a peer. Her intelligence though is clear and this means that if provided with a clear script for her interaction, it can go off without a hitch. But when the script runs out, the uncertainty and anxiety returns and so she’s cast adrift. Nevertheless, her desire for a friend is forever poignant. She seeks to connect with a peer, wants to interact and be with them. Yet, at the same time, the act of interacting and observing social cues can become mentally exhausting and so if she’s having a bad day, she will recline, happily away from them. It leads me to wonder: did she really want a friend or did she just want to fit the social stereotype for a young girl, if only for a little while?
Girls on the Spectrum
It is always life affirming to recognise that although we all have similarities, we are also unique. Young girls with autism are no different. Although they reflect some atypical characteristics, when you get to know them they are all different and contribute value in myriad ways. Therefore, it is clear that autism is quite rightly a spectrum condition – even with the same gendered peers, the result is simply: chalk and cheese!