17 Oct How Schools Can Support Autistic Girls More Effectively by Rebekah Gillian
Attending mainstream education as an autistic girl wasn’t an easy thing to go through. From three, when I started attending nursery, I learnt the only way to get through it was to subconsciously copy others. I observed my peers for inspiration and copied their social interactions. And this worked for a while. I struggled through primary school but for the most part, nobody really knew because I hid it so well.
In secondary school, however, everything changed. Social rules became too complex for me to keep up with and I was expected to be able to do things other kids could do that I couldn’t. It wasn’t long before I fell behind. Things got so bad that I eventually dropped out of mainstream school in year 8.
I wish I could tell you this was a rarity, but really, it’s something that’s happening more and more in today’s society. It doesn’t have to be that way, though. Here are some things schools can do to support autistic girls more effectively, based on my own experiences.
Be Direct With Instructions
Using language that involves the ability to read between the lines isn’t helpful for autistic girls. We cannot always understand what people mean when they’re hinting at something, so it’s best if you explicitly state what you want them to do. That ‘find X’ joke that goes viral around exam season, where the individual has circled X instead of working out the problem, might be what an autistic person does without meaning to be funny. They aren’t really wrong, are they?
A lot of autistic girls hide behind masks that stop you from being able to understand how they’re truly feeling. This means that, even if you think you know that they understand what you’re saying, they might not. I remember a lot of memories from my school years where I would tell the teacher I understood what they had told me, only to go back to my desk as confused as I had been before they’d explained.
Find Out Their Preferred Method Of Communication
Even if an autistic girl is verbal, this might not be the most effective way of communicating with her. You want a student who can communicate with you when they need support, or have a problem, but this might take some time to figure out.
My preferred method of communication throughout school was through my mum. She was my advocate and would translate the conversations I had with her across to my Tutor, Head of House, or another member of staff. This was great until they decided to stop allowing this, telling me I needed to grow up and learn to do things for myself. After this, communication with the school completely shut down, and it wasn’t long before my problems in school completely escalated.
Make Autistic Girls Aware Of Changes As Much As Possible
Unexpected changes aren’t always avoidable. However, where possible, it’s important to inform the autistic girl in your classroom when things are going to change and what this is going to look like. Without this in place, the autistic girl may meltdown or even shutdown, which can be extremely traumatic and even embarrassing for the individual.
When I returned to mainstream education in college, one of my lecturers would write down the schedule of our lessons on the bored. This was really helpful, and saved a lot of anxiety on my behalf because I knew what was going to happen and when.
Create An Escape Plan
Regardless of the steps you take to make the autistic girl feel comfortable, there may be times where they need to take themselves out of a situation. The truth is, you won’t know what’s happened before the girl has come to school, and sensory sensitivities change on a daily basis. Both of these things can leave an autistic girl feeling unsettled, and trapped within the classroom. You may have no option but to let them leave to get a breather.
In school, I devised a plan as part of my IEP (Individual Education Plan), where I’d be allowed to have my phone on my desk. If I felt overwhelmed and unable to tell someone, I’d text my mum, who would call the school, and they’d arrange to get me out of the situation without disturbing the rest of the class.
Thank you so much to Rebekah for sharing her experience of mainstream school from her unique perspective. The more we share and talk about the additional needs of children, the greater the understanding and empathy.