This article appeared on March 8, 2017 on Spectrum Women Magazine
A Spectrum Women collaboration, edited by Maura Campbell
In honour of International Women’s Day, the Spectrum Women writers have compiled a list of things we think it’s particularly important for parents or carers of girls on the autism spectrum to know.
1. Recognise how autism presents differently in girls
In adult studies, the 4:1 male/female ratio in autism diagnosis disappears. This means autistic girls are not rare. Persist when they say so. Look for intensity and insistence on sameness. Many of our behaviours are quite typical but we won’t choose to stop, have trouble when things aren’t done ‘just so’ and resist change. At first glance, we may appear to you to have mental health issues due to eating disorders, suicidal thinking or self-abuse, and so diagnosticians need to dig deeper when they see anxiety, depression or food challenges AND sensory reactions. We have a range of levels of social ability, and clinicians should retire the term ‘she’s too social to be autistic’.
2. There’s more to life than being a social butterfly
Making friends should not be forced on us. It will come in time and may be in a non-standard sort of way — and that’s okay as long as it is safe. Guide and support us on safety so that connections are not made in unsafe spaces.
3. Respect the sensory
Believe us when we say it’s too loud, it smells too bad or it doesn’t taste right. It may seem okay to you but be hell for us. If our senses are overloaded, other things will suffer including our learning.
4. We may be ‘tomboys’, or gender-fluid
Gender is a complex and varied thing. Many of us are non-binary or trans, in which case gendered lists of characteristics and traits may actually be unhelpful. Among those of us who identify as female, we may not be particularly interested in ‘girly’ things or we may be intensely interested in fashion and make-up.
5. We love being in our own world
If we don’t hear what you’ve said, we are not being rude; it’s just that there is so much going on in our heads that we can’t always hear you and it can be hard for us to come back completely to the real world quickly and respond accordingly.
6. Our intense interests are important to us
The things we enjoy should be valued, no more or less than other people’s interests. It doesn’t matter if no one else understands. Intense interests should be encouraged and developed, even though they may seem silly or age inappropriate to you. If you do encourage our interests as we grow up, they could lead to an extremely fulfilling career, which is much better than having us pursue something more socially acceptable and ending up miserable in adulthood.
7. We shouldn’t be forced to adopt behaviours that feel unnatural to us
Don’t keep making us do something that makes us feel sad or frustrated simply because you think it is how we ‘should’ behave in the world. Let go of your own preconceptions and let us just ‘be’.
8. Just because we’re quiet, it doesn’t mean we’re okay
Sometimes we are frozen with anxiety, silenced by overwhelm, or have lost our motivation from depression. And, sometimes, we are purposefully giving our brains and body a break from the outside world. All behaviour means something. Don’t assume, ask. Sometimes we might not be ready to talk or may struggle to understand what’s wrong, so do not press us when that happens.
9. We hear what you say about us
We hear a lot of what you say about us to each other, the doctor, the therapist… and we notice when you never once ask us about ourselves. We want to be directly involved in what happens to us: ‘Everything about Us with Us’. Trust us. Ask us. Listen to us.
10. Celebrate what’s great about us!
Focus on our strengths and talents more than our challenges. If you only address our deficits you will undermine our fragile sense of self and damage our self-esteem. There is so much about us that is wonderful. Your main job as a parent to love us unconditionally, so accept us as we are. We are being the person we were born to be.