Written by: Eliora Tan Yuxuan (21-E5), Jolina Prisha Nair (21-E5), Lim Zi Loong, Zexel (21-E2)
Designed by: Katelyn Joshy (21-U1)
What is Autism?
Autism is a lifelong developmental disability that typically appears during early childhood and can impact a person’s social skills, communication, relationships and self-regulation. The word autism originates from ‘autos’, the Greek word for ‘self’. People with autism are often referred to as someone who lives in a world of their own. Autism is defined by a certain set of behaviours and is a spectrum condition that affects people differently to various degrees.
How is Autism different in Girls?
Autism is more common in boys than in girls. Healthcare professionals, caregivers and parents tend to overlook the symptoms of autism in girls. Stereotypes about typical male and female behaviours can cause some people to miss some symptoms. For instance, many people think of girls as naturally quieter or more content to play alone than boys. However, speaking less and preferring to spend time alone can both be symptoms of autism.
Girls are more likely to react to stress in ways that people may not notice immediately, such as self-harm. Boys may be more likely to react to stress outwardly — for example, by becoming angry or misbehaving. This behaviour is more visible and may flag up autism sooner.
Girls may have more self-awareness and be more conscious of “fitting in” socially. This can mean that they are able to hide the symptoms of autism in childhood or put more time and energy into learning social norms.
As girls get older and social norms and friendships become more complex, they may find it more difficult to relate to others. This can mean that they may not receive a diagnosis of autism until their teenage years.
What are the safety risks of Autistic Girls?
Autism hinders a girl’s ability to read social cues making them more vulnerable. They become susceptible to bullying for the sheer reason of being “different” and are easily taken advantage of. In more severe cases, they fall victim to sexual predators.
A recent study by Autism Speaks found that children with autism wander away from home, stores and school often. More than half of these children go missing long enough to cause worry. 65% of the incidents involve a close call with traffic and 32% involve near drowning accidents. According to their parents, the main reason for such wandering is their love for running and exploring. However, sometimes these children run away to escape stressful situations or an uncomfortable sensory stimulus.
Hence, it is of utmost importance for parents to develop safety plans with their families, teachers, police, and other community members to protect children with autism who wander and to be able to locate them. Continued community support is the best way to ensure their safety.
What are the current measures in place in Singapore?
Allied educators are the main form of aid for autistic students in mainstream schools. They conduct weekly sessions with these students to bridge gaps in areas of difficulty. As of 2019, MOE states that there are more than 25,000 students with special needs in mainstream schools, and about 500 allied educators here. This ratio is alarming compared to British Columbia’s ratio of 73,000 special needs students to 12,000 education assistants. A former allied educator, who worked in a mainstream school in Singapore, said that her biggest challenge was the heavy workload. She even had to “juggle up to 50 cases” concurrently. Teachers would often demand “instant fixes” for children with special needs, or requested her to take them “out of the class”. At times, “it’s not just one student with special needs, some classes have up to 10 with varying needs,” she claimed.
There are also a total of 20 Special Education (SPED) schools in Singapore and they offer different programmes that cater to distinct disability groups of children. However, SPED schools face numerous difficulties. Firstly, fees and funding vary from mainstream to SPED schools. The cost of school fees for special needs students can amount to as much as $350 while government-aided students only pay around $6.50 to $13 for miscellaneous fees. Though no child is denied an education, the vast difference in fees is still unfair to families of children in SPED schools.
Secondly, the pay and qualifications of SPED school teachers vary enormously. The qualifications of such teachers are usually less stringent than those of mainstream teachers. As Sped teachers do not come under MOE’s purview, they also do not have access to the same salary scales and opportunities as their peers in mainstream schools. Hence, there is a general perception that Sped school teachers have less recognition, and their pay packages are less attractive, even though their jobs are usually tougher.
We see that though efforts have been made to aid children with special needs, they are insufficient to meet the demand. Allied educators and teachers in SPED schools are forced to handle tough situations with little in return and not enough is being done to educate the student population on their classmates’ learning disabilities. Thus, more attention and resources needs to be given to these children to allow them to truly thrive.
How can we help raise awareness of autism?
It is paramount that we take action to alter society’s perception of patients with autism and help to reduce (or even eliminate) the stigma they face everyday through actively initiating conversations about autism, especially in girls. Society has failed to acknowledge the fact that autism does not only affect males, but both genders. What they previously ignored, they must now acknowledge. Here are some suggestions on how we can help.
Firstly, we should equip ourselves with knowledge on how to identify symptoms of autism specifically in girls. These are easily missed, and examples of these symptoms include controlling one’s behavior in public by mimicking other neurotypical students in order to blend in (Arky, 2021). Identification of these symptoms encourages early detection of autism in girls so that parents can be informed about any anomalies in their child’s behaviour and seek professional help immediately.
Secondly, we can support social change initiatives which focus on combating gender bias in autism. Even simple actions like attending talks, rallies and other publicity events to educate oneself and speaking up about the issue with our circle of friends are meaningful contributions to increase awareness of autism in girls. For example, in some elementary schools in Vancouver, “demystification” sessions are conducted in mainstream primary schools (Choo, 2019). With the permission and participation of parents, and allied educators, autistic girls are given the opportunity to explain their disability, how it affects them and how we can help them, from their very own perspective. Hearing these stories will broaden the perspective of neurotypical students and cultivate a sense of understanding and inclusion from a young age. This is essential to supporting females suffering from autism.
Lastly, we must practice greater empathy and compassion in how we treat patients with autism. Instead of labelling them as “peculiar” or “slow” (Stevenson, 2005), we must learn to see things from their perspective, as the world around them is completely different from their point of view. Practice patience and understanding, because autistic people are still human beings with feelings and thoughts (Stevenson, 2005), just like any other neurotypical person. This surely takes time and effort, given that societal expectations procure otherwise, but it is important in moving toward a more inclusive and caring society.
In conclusion, the lack of awareness and understanding about autism in girls have caused autistic girls to further struggle both academically and socially. The difficulty in diagnosing autism in girls is especially detrimental and emphasises the need for all to be properly educated on autistic symptoms in order to increase early intervention. By organising talks, rallies, and other publicity events, and conducting “demystification” sessions, people from all walks of life will have a better understanding of the challenges faced by patients with autism, especially girls, and how to help them.
- Arky, B. (2021). Sensory Processing Issues Explained. Child Mind Institute. Retrieved June 17, 2021, from https://childmind.org/article/sensory-processing-issues-explained/
- Arky, B. (2021). Why Many Autistic Girls Are Overlooked. Child Mind Institute. Retrieved June 17, 2021, from https://childmind.org/article/autistic-girls-overlooked-undiagnosed-autism/
- Choo, C. (2019, September 30). The Big Read: Where kids with and without special needs learn together – and it’s not in Singapore. Channel News Asia. Retrieved March 14, 2021, from https://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/singapore/big-read-kids-with-and-without-special-needs-learn-together-11952714
- Stevenson, N. (2005, July 16). Autism doesn’t have to be viewed as a disability or disorder. Autism Doesn’t Have to Be Viewed as a Disability or Disorder. https://www.theguardian.com/science/blog/2015/jul/16/autism-doesnt-have-to-be-viewed-as-a-disability-or-disorder
- What is Autism? (2019, August 22). Autism Resource Centre (Singapore). Retrieved June 18, 2021, from https://www.autism.org.sg/living-with-autism/what-is-autism
- Sissons, C. (2019, June 26). What to know about autism in girls. Medical News Today. Retrieved June 18, 2021, from https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/325574#why-doctors-might-miss-it
- Szalavitz, M. (2016, March 1). Autism—It’s Different in Girls. Scientific Amercian. Retrieved June 18, 2021, from https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/autism-it-s-different-in-girls/
- Safety Team. (2021, February 12). Keeping Your Child With Autism Safe. Retrieved June 18, 2021, from https://www.safety.com/autism-safety/
- Goy, P. (2016, December 1). Special needs gaps in ‘every child matters’. https://www.straitstimes.com/opinion/special-needs-gaps-in-every-child-matters