Girls with Autism face unique challenges during adolescence

Raising a child with autism is not easy, and the challenges that arise during the teen years are well documented. Continuing our series on autism and females we look at the issues surrounding adolescence. Changing bodies, hormone levels, and new social expectations are hurdles many typically-developing children struggle with, and for children with autism, they can be quite intense.

For parents of girls with autism, the challenge is even greater. Since autism is a disorder that primarily affects boys, most of the research and resources are targeted towards males. Girls, however, must deal with different physical and social expectations during the teen years, and parents report there are few resources available to help.

Rachel Norton, blogger and parent of a daughter with autism, says,

“Females are biologically and socially expected to be nurturing, intuitive, and empathetic, and yet autism is primarily a social-emotional disorder that profoundly affects relationships and social behavior. For girls, the collision between autistic characteristics and social expectations can be especially difficult – and almost insurmountable during the teen years”

She goes on to say,

“. . .all children with autism are less aware of the impact of their behavior, which can lead to fatal errors in the social minefield that is middle school. Typically-developing girls are often hyper-aware of even the smallest social misstep, and can be very adept at subtly ostracizing or ridiculing the transgressor. As a result, girls with autism are often at a double disadvantage, because of the collision between their disability and their gender.”

If interacting with other girls can be challenging, navigating the dynamics of boy-girl relationships can be downright dangerous. Typically-developing girls are better able to understand the subtle dance of signals and attraction that indicate interest from a member of the opposite sex. Girls on the spectrum may openly declare their attraction to a classmate, unaware of the social ramifications this can cause when the feelings are not reciprocated.

The stakes become even higher when girls are in situations where their intentions may be misunderstood. They are generally unable to read the subtle innuendoes their partners may use when testing the waters for a possible sexual encounter, and they may also be unaware of the signals they may be inadvertently sending. Books like The Aspie Girl’s Guide to Being Safe with Men: The Unwritten Safety Rules No One is Telling You by Debi Brown can help parent guide their daughters through this difficult area.

Puberty also brings physical changes, and the need to learn new grooming and hygiene behaviors. There are many resources designed to help parents teach boys how to shave, but very few that explain how to use sanitary napkins or tampons. Girls with autism can also struggle with fashion, hairstyles, and makeup, which become important in the culture of middle school and beyond.

Since girls are under-represented and under-served in the autism population, parents are rising up to fill in the void. Books like Parenting Girls on the Autism Spectrum: Overcoming the Challenges and Celebrating the Gifts by Eileen Riley-Hall and Asperger’s and Girls by Mary Wrobel, Lisa Iland, Jennifer McIlwee Myers, and Ruth Snyder are available at Amazon and other retailers.