As we move past the halfway mark for 2015 and take a look so far at this year in autism, one particular trend has received increased medical and journalistic attention: better understanding the relationship between girls and autism. As we have documented at length in this space, a number of new studies have come out this year that highlight the fact that there is a lack of knowledge about how autism is diagnosed in young girls and how they experience the condition differently.
After all, while 1 in 42 boys are diagnosed on the autism spectrum, only 1 in 189 girls are diagnosed. Studies looking at the behavioral patterns of girls with autism have highlighted the fact that they demonstrate symptoms differently and often later in their development, leading to later diagnoses when compared to their male peers. On top of the social reasons why girls are diagnosed less, another study from this year sheds light on the biological reasons behind the difference, finding neurological differences in boys and girls with autism.
So while in the past six months, we have gained greater insight into the social and biological differences in how girls experience autism, there has been a lack of cultural content seeking to better understand how young girls deal with autism…until now.
This month, on the British channel ITV, a documentary airs entitled Girls with Autism that takes viewers behind the doors of the Limpsfield Grange School in Oxted, UK, which is the only state-run boarding school for girls with autism in the UK and is aimed at girls aged 11 to 16.
The school first opened its doors to the film crew in September of 2014 for six months of filming. In explaining her reasoning for allowing the film crew on the school’s grounds, Headteacher Sarah Wild expressed hope that the documentary would raise awareness about girls with autism and how they differ from boys with autism.
According to Ms. Wild, “At the moment the diagnosis tools that are used to diagnose autism are a bit boy-focused. Girls can be quite sociable, they want to have friends and connect with other people, some of them might well have boyfriends. They are a bit more interesting than boys on the [autism] spectrum, so sometimes they get missed.”
As such, the documentary focuses on the school’s efforts to create a calm environment in which small 10-person classes are designed with such activities as play with animals to help the girls to better manage their anxiety.
One theme that rises to the top throughout the documentary is the importance of friendship in these young girls’ lives. As Ms. Wild noted, “They are really desperate for friendships because they do not understand how to make friends, they can get a bit obsessed when a friendship is going wrong. We teach them how to make friends, how to retain friends, and how to repair a friendship.”
With the program now airing throughout the UK, it is the hope of Ms. Wild and her staff that this documentary will lead to increased sensitivity to the nuanced differences in autism across genders while also giving the girls themselves the opportunity to tell their own stories in their own ways.