Now that she is almost 13 there is no denying that my daughter has autism. That hasn’t always been the case though. I have always known that there was something a little different about her, but it wasn’t until she was around 8 that I began asking “Does my child have autism?”.
In fact, before she was in school I had no idea that there was anything “wrong”. She had a few behavioral issues but I didn’t know well enough to think that it was more than normal for her age. Back then I had no idea what autism was. My mother worked with adults who had developmental disabilities. There were some with autism there. However, they were very severe cases so that was my only understanding of it. I knew nothing of there being a spectrum or of Asperger’s syndrome.
It feels like we went through every diagnosis possible before setting on autism. My daughter is a unique case. She has high functioning autism ( formerly known as Asperger’s) and bipolar disorder. The combination of the two has been misdiagnosed more times than I want to remember. She has been diagnosed with everything from ADHD to Schizophrenia.
This isn’t very uncommon for girls with autism. Many times there will be a whole host of diagnoses (often starting with ADHD). This is most often due to the similarities in autism and other behavioral health conditions. In addition to this, the signs of autism in girls are often more subtle and easier to overlook in some cases.
Early Detection is Key
For any child with autism, an early diagnosis is crucial for the best prognosis. Of course, autism is a spectrum disorder. This means some children may need only minimal support. Others will need lifelong full support.
There are many signs of autism that are present in even infants. Picking up on these can help get children who need help to appropriate services. My daughter did not receive support services until she was around 9 years old. In hindsight, there are many symptoms of autism that I should have picked up on. But, I didn’t know any better. Many of her autism symptoms were attributed to something else or overlooked by professionals. Living in a foreign country at the time she started school didn’t help things. She was in an English speaking school, but resources were still very limited.
Once diagnosed, children with autism can have a wide variety of support. This can include occupational therapies to help with everyday tasks or speech therapy to help with properly forming words. Even physical therapy to help with moving the body itself. Therapies such as ABA or other psychotherapy can help children understand social cues. They can also help with other things that are difficult with autism.
There is a world of possibilities for children with autism if they receive early and effective support. However, finding what works best for your child can sometimes be a long confusing process.
Autism is a Spectrum Disorder
One of the most important things to understand when looking for symptoms in girls is that autism is a spectrum disorder. This means that there are children who have a very severe form of autism (sometimes called “Kanner’s autism”). These children can be nonverbal, suffer cognitive issues, and have great difficulty in their everyday lives. Other children may have a milder form of autism. They can express themselves and have fewer issues with cognition or gastrointestinal problems but may have issues with understanding social nuances or peer relations. Some children may have sensory issues apart from or on top of other symptoms. Each child with autism is an individual and will express the disorder in their own unique way.
There are some signs that are common to all children with autism:
This list is not all inclusive of the symptoms of children with autism. They are some of the more commonly seen symptoms of autism regardless of severity.
Many of the signs and symptoms of autism can be less severe in girls than they are in boys. However, they are usually all still present. Looking back, even as a toddler, I can see every one of these things in my child. Before her diagnosis, I worried because she did struggle with many of these things. I had no idea why though, and it seemed like everyone and their brother was just concerned with calling her a “difficult child” even though I knew better. Helping her has become so much easier now. I understand that she struggles because of difficulties that come from her diagnosis of autism. This has helped me find ways to empower her to work through these issues.
Sometimes, it can be easier to diagnose autism in teenage girls than it is to diagnose autism in young girls. This is because older girls are becoming more aware of their place in social situations. This is something that girls with autism struggle greatly with. Social interactions can be strained and difficult. There can be a lack of friendships, and children with autism can become the target of bullying.
Autism is Different in Girls
While boys with autism are more well known for behaviors such as hand flapping or other “stimming” behaviors girls with autism can sometimes fade into the background. They often take cues, right or wrong, from other children. Sometimes they prefer playing with children younger than themselves.
Autism in young girls and teens can present itself as a low tolerance for frustration. There can be a tendency to anger, anxiety, or even depression. Many girls with autism will self-harm in ways such as head banging, scratching, or even cutting.
In girls with autism, there is a great difficulty to make or keep friends. Girls will often jump from one friend to another. Some will try to hold onto friendships that are bad or dangerous for them. Girls with autism have difficulty understanding social situations that are crucial to making and keeping friends. They can be described as exceptionally quiet, shy, or even overly passive.
Autism in girls can lead to very intense, passionate interests on a singular subject. In my daughter, there are two things that all life revolves around. Drawing and Harry Potter. While it is not unusual for a young girl to like to draw my daughter will fill up 5 notebooks in a day if I let her. She is an exceptionally talented artist and has taught herself various techniques by watching others on YouTube or Musically.
Supporting Girls with Autism
When it comes to autism or ASD in girls the social skills seem to be the most important part. Girls who have an autism diagnosis need support in understanding social situations. They need help producing appropriate responses to a variety of situations. They also tend to need help in controlling anger and anxiety. This is no different in my daughter.
Support for girls with autism can take the form of kinesthetic speech therapy. This can help them understand the back and forth of traditional conversations. It can also help with proper peer relations and socially acceptable behaviors. Occupational therapy can help with things that stem from sensory issues.
Behavioral specialists can help girls to deal with anxiety and depression. Although some may be against it medication can be helpful in some cases of autism in girls. Many parents have reported great success in CBD oils. In a perfect world, I would prefer to avoid medications for her. However, my daughter who has a comorbid diagnosis of bipolar disorder has made amazing strides since finding the proper combination of medications.
There are wonderful support and social groups that provide social interactions for children with autism. There are sports groups, homeschool groups, and many other resources out there to help children and adults with autism life fulfilling lives.
A diagnosis of autism can also help your school’s special needs coordinator. They will work with you to support your child in their education. They will use the child’s diagnosis to come up with an IEP ( individualized education plan). This will help your child get the best education possible in the least restrictive environment. That said, always be your child’s advocate.
If you feel that they are not receiving proper support for their diagnosis it is on you to speak up. Each child, autistic or not, has unique educational needs. What works for one may not work for another, and your child deserves the best of what works for them.
It is important to understand your role as the mother of a girl with autism spectrum disorder as well. Many times your daughter will look to you and model your behavior as her own. I find my daughter doing this frequently, both the good and the bad.
As a mom whose child needs help with social cues and appropriate behavior, I have found it even more important to model good mental and physical health practices. I have become more mindful of how my words or actions are being interpreted by her.
If you are the mother of a child with autism or other behavioral or mental health disorder I welcome you to join us in our growing support community!
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