Autistic girls absent from school

Autistic girls absent from school – out of sight, out of mind?

Dr Ruth Moyse has kindly written this article based upon her research “Re-writing the narrative: Lessons about inclusion from autistic adolescent girls who stop attending school”.

Adolescent autistic girls are significantly more likely than autistic boys – or non-autistic boys and girls – to be persistently absent from school (Moyse, 2021). Unlike formal exclusions, however, their increasing absence often appears to go unnoticed and unaddressed until many stop attending altogether.

And it matters. Firstly, education is a human right underpinned by law in this country, and the non-attendance of autistic girls is therefore a rights issue. The consequences include not just the loss of the opportunity to learn, but often a significant deterioration in these girls’ mental health as well. The development of depression, eating disorders and self-harm were all self-reported by the participants in my recent study.

Well-meaning responses by school may amount to an invitation for the girls to return when they feel able, but this positions the issue as a problem with the child – and for the child to solve. In reality the reason for absence often lies in school and outside the control of the young person. Without an informed effort to understand why they stop attending, the likelihood of a successful reintegration is remote.

So why is it happening?

"There is nothing. I see nothing."

Class Teacher

Firstly, autistic girls may not appear to be experiencing difficulties at school, particularly if they are academically able. Many people still think of autism and ‘special educational needs’ as observable things; things that can be seen. Indeed, support may be more readily provided for those children who are seen to deviate from established behavioural conventions and expectations in the classroom; who have an impact on their teacher or their peers; or who are assessed as not meeting academic targets. And autistic girls don’t always match those descriptions.

"I would be smiling and acting like I was fine. I would be getting on with my work and doing everything I could to fit in. Inside I would be worried and upset and anxious."

Rosie

What hope for support, then, for an autistic girl who appears quiet and compliant in school, whose grades are in the required range, and yet who goes home exhausted and ready to explode from the daily effort of trying to survive in a physical and social environment she experiences as hostile? Autistic girls who internalise their distress at school may have their needs underestimated or overlooked, whilst parental concerns resulting from their perspective at home are often dismissed.

Part of the solution is for school staff to be more informed about autism, so that they are not swayed by outdated information and harmful stereotypes. This means listening to autistic people. In fact, the best way to learn about what an autistic girl needs to thrive in school is to ask her.

“Just listen. It’s not rocket science, just listen.”

Daisy

It means being more curious. An autistic girl who frequently is not where she should be – not on the playground at lunch or in a particular lesson – is removing herself for a reason. Many autistic girls report high levels of bullying and sensory overwhelm in school, for example. Providing the means for her to leave (such as through an exit pass) may give short-term relief but is not a long-term solution. The cause of the absence needs to be understood and not assumed. It also means schools taking action to resolve the reason for the absence, as otherwise the cycle will repeat and non-attendance increase.

What children said

In my ideal school I would be

  • accepted
  • safe
  • comfortable to be myself
  • learning
  • blending in - a part of it all
  • relaxed.

Finally, it means prioritising their wellbeing over grades. The non-attending girls who participated in my research wanted to be in school, learning, but this required them first to feel safe, accepted and cared about. Underpinning all of this is the development of trusted relationships.

Dr Ruth Moyse

References

Moyse, R. (2021) Missing: The autistic girls absent from mainstream secondary schools [PhD, University of Reading]

Moyse, R., & Porter, J. (2015) The experience of the hidden curriculum for autistic girls at mainstream primary schools. [European Journal of Special Needs Education, 30(2), 187–201]

Additional information

Ruth’s webinar “Rewriting the Narrative for Autistic Adolescent Girls” explains her research and findings further.

On the National Development Team for Inclusion website, you can find: