More girls on the autism spectrum need to be identified in schools to ensure better career prospects for women, said Dr Jacqui Ashton Smith, at the Bett Show 2016.
Ashton Smith is the Executive Director of Education at Helen Allison School, which is a specialist school in Kent run by the National Autistic Society.
Speaking at the Bett Show 2016 she stressed the importance of identifying more girls on the autism spectrum to ensure they get the support they need.
She said: “I’m no expert despite 30 years of experience, because not many girls with autism are being identified. It really worries me that we’re missing so many girls on the autism spectrum. Currently, few girls are diagnosed to go through the education system.”
The Bett Show is an annual technology in education event, which takes place in January at London ExCel. This year’s show attracted 34,000 attendees and 750 companies from 120 countries.
Ashton Smith works at a school with 70 children of which 66 are boys: “One girl told me she wanted to go to her brother’s school, as there are girls there. Specialist schools are often male dominated, but girls can feel suffocated by the chaos of being in a mainstream school.”
She drew attention to the story of Selina Postgate, who in an interview with the Guardian in 2008 claimed she would have been more successful if she had been diagnosed earlier: “I’ve done very little with my life professionally and I could have done a lot more if I’d understood myself.”
In the interview continued: “At school I was bright, but eccentric. If I had been a boy, that would have been tolerated more. I’d have gone into science, I’m sure – I might have gone on to be a nuclear physicist. I’d have met some girl who would have become my supportive wife and she would have made up for my social shortcomings, in the eyes of the world, and I’d have been the rather odd but brilliant professor who couldn’t really handle social occasions but who was always well looked-after by his lovely wife, and who did so many wonderful things at work that none of it mattered anyway.
“Instead of that, though, I have achieved practically nothing. Relationships, like jobs, have gone out of the window – I’ve not had the self-awareness to hold down either.
“Being an autistic woman has been pivotal to everything that’s happened to me. If I’d been an autistic man, my story could have been very different.”
Commenting on Postgate Ashton Smith said: “What a waste and what she could’ve contributed. We can’t let that happen to our girls.”
Why are girls with autism not being identified and diagnosed?
An autism diagnosis is relatively rare in girls and Asperger’s is even rarer. Boys outnumber girls with autism by four to one in “high functioning autism” and for Asperger’s the gender ratio is estimated to be 10 to one.
According to Ashton Smith girls are more likely to be “compliant” and fall off the radar compared to boys, making them less likely to be identified as having special education needs (SEN).
A 2010 study by Gillberg and Kopp 2010 called ‘Autism in girls: Symptomatic differences’ highlights several differences between girls and boys on the autism spectrum and why it can be difficult for teachers to identify girls who need support.
The report addressed children who lacked best friends revealing that 30% girls 5% boys did not have ‘best’ friends. Ashton Smith said: “Girls want to follow and emulate other girls. If in a special school, girls lack other girls to make friends with.”
She added: “Girls on the autism spectrum also need to be taught that to be a friend of someone doesn’t mean that you own them – it’s ok to have more than one friend. We need to do more to teach these girls these things to give them the support and encouragement they need.”
The report also mention that 65% of girls “demand avoidance” compared to 20% boys: “The girls don’t put head their above the parapet and they know if they don’t speak up then no one will bother them.”
In addition the report also identified that girls with autism have passive personalities and are compliant, shy, coy, embarrassed and naïve instead of disruptive. “In boys disruptive behavior is more common,” explained Ashton Smith.
“If girls are not picking something up in class they will not ask and if they do not know the answer they will hide. If possible teachers could give these girls lessons plans the day before so they could prepare.”
According to Ashton Smith girls are more able in social play and have a more even profile of social skills. She said girls are more able to follow social actions by delayed imitation because they observe other children and copy them, “perhaps masking the symptoms of Asperger’s syndrome and always being someone else to fit in.”
“Ask a boy what he thinks of himself and he’ll say ‘I’m great’ however if you ask a girl she’ll say ‘I don’t know.’ Girls worry about what others think. One girl was upset because she didn’t have a phone, and was concerned about what others thought of her for not having one, however when she finally got one she felt worse because no one called her.”
For girls on the autism spectrum a lack of identification, appropriate support and appropriately trained teachers and staff can result in social isolation, depression, lower grades and a reduced future prognosis.
Ashton Smith explained “subtle bullying leads to depression. One girl was texting a girl with autism to meet her somewhere, but when the girl got there she told her to meet her somewhere else. She continued to change locations all afternoon and had the girl walking up and down all Saturday, as she was naïve to go along with it.”
She drew attention to a “hidden curriculum” that needs to be taught to girls because they can be naïve and “are not behind the bike shed picking up the language used there. For example when a guy asks you to go up for coffee at 11pm he doesn’t actually mean coffee. This would help to keep these girls safe.”
“Think how difficult it is for a diagnition to pick up girls with autism, so think how hard it is for teachers? These girls are all in our mainstream schools. Can you imagine if all the girls that didn’t get the support, or the education they really needed – imagine where they’d be now?” concluded Ashton Smith.