Why Smart Girls With Autism Need Extra Attention
Takeaway: Smart and gifted girls with autism are often skilled at hiding their differences. And this makes it much harder to notice that they need help. But if we diagnose them early, we can strategically nurture their strengths, support their weaknesses, and free them from having to struggle alone.
As parents, it’s worrying to see our children behaving atypically. And that’s why an autism diagnosis is so useful.
Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) describes how some children’s brains develop differently from what’s expected – i.e., they develop ‘atypically.’ And this translates into many noticeable behaviour changes. For instance, children with autism usually take longer to begin speaking, struggle with communication skills (e.g., expressing nuanced emotions, reading body language, etc.), and dislike changes to their daily routine. Parents often hope their children will outgrow these difficulties, but autism isn’t something that ‘goes away.’ So, an autism diagnosis is useful in validating your child’s struggles and setting up the right support systems for her. (Learn more about autism spectrum disorder.)
There isn’t just one type of autism, though. Rather, autistic traits lie on a spectrum.
Children with autism aren’t all alike. Instead, they have different capabilities and needs. For instance, some children don’t have speech and language difficulties but struggle with social skills. Others might have emotion-control issues, instead – e.g., frequent tantrums, meltdowns, and aggressive behaviour. And some children struggle primarily with a heightened sensitivity to sensory input (e.g., loud noises, bright lights, etc.). So, how much support your child needs will depend on where she is on the autism spectrum.
But the autism spectrum is nuanced, making it harder to assess a child’s potential.
Because autism presents as such a nuanced spectrum, it’s easy to overlook a child’s potential. Let’s take intelligence, for example. Traditionally, we’ve measured intelligence in terms of a child’s intelligence quotient (IQ) – i.e., how well she performs on a series of tests compared to other children her age. (These tests measure specific abilities like pattern recognition, memory, deductive reasoning, abstract thinking, etc.) But children with autism have different ways of thinking, communicating, and behaving – ways that IQ tests don’t account for – so they often do poorly in these tests. For instance, if your child doesn’t take well to strangers and is disturbed by bright lights, how successful will she be in a publicly conducted test in a new, overstimulating environment?
So, children with autism can be exceptionally gifted without us realising it.
The paradox of autism is that children who struggle with basic adaptive skills (e.g., brushing their teeth, getting to class on time, making breakfast, etc.) might have significant academic and career potential. But traits of this ‘giftedness’ get hidden amidst general autistic traits. For instance, gifted children and children with autism often both love learning, think differently/creatively, get preoccupied with niche subjects, struggle to sit still for long, and don’t care about social niceties and norms. This overlap means that people often overlook gifted children with autism because they confuse their ‘gifted’ traits with autistic traits. (The ultimate example of this overlap is the rare autistic savant – a person with autism and genius-level niche skills. For instance, the ability to calculate – in less than a second – the day of the week in which someone was born. Or the ability to name, without any reference or clues, the exact note someone plays on a musical instrument – i.e., ‘perfect pitch.’)
But remember, gifted children aren’t necessarily high achievers and often become anxious and frustrated.
Being gifted doesn’t guarantee a child will do well at school. For example, if her niche passions aren’t part of the curriculum, she’ll likely struggle to pay attention in class. This means she won’t develop crucial concentration and study skills, which will soon affect her grades as the assignments get more complicated. Further, her autism-related social struggles might leave her feeling isolated and alone, making school even less enjoyable. So, a gifted child could become anxious, frustrated, and depressed, regardless of her potential.
This is especially a problem for girls, who use intelligence and giftedness to mask their autism.
Both boys and girls with autism struggle academically and socially, but girls do a much better at hiding it. Whereas boys might act out and disrupt the class, girls tend to withdraw and be quiet– behaviour that is easy to miss. Moreover, girls actively camouflage their social differences by mimicking their friends’ behaviour to fit in better. And while this strategy works, it’s exhausting to keep playing a character (rather than just be oneself), and all the extra effort usually leads to burnout. (Learn why autism affects girls differently than boys.) So, the pattern with smart girls is that they camouflage their differences until puberty when social and academic life becomes significantly more complicated. And at this point, all the inner turmoil bubbles up, leading to more severe breakdowns, school refusal, and psychosomatic issues (where the mind signals its overwhelm through physical problems like headaches, tummy aches, and seemingly-causeless illnesses.)
Thankfully, an early autism diagnosis can help smart girls maximise their strengths and minimise their difficulties.
An autism diagnosis can be liberating for smart girls because they’ll stop camouflaging their differences once they get the right support. And since they’re not wasting energy trying to hide their difficulties, they can begin to fuel their strengths. The American scientist Temple Grandin is the perfect example of what smart girls with autism can achieve. She’s the lady who invented a ‘hugging machine’ to help her through anxiety attacks. (It’s a remarkable machine that simulates the comfort of a hug, but without the complication of having another human involved. Perfect for people with autism!). With the right support, she overcame her speaking and sensory-overload challenges, focusing on her gift for visual thinking instead. For instance, she excels at industrial design because her mind can instantly translate a 2D paper blueprint into a vibrant mental image of the final 3D product. But that same mind struggles to remember even simple things like what a work acquaintance looks like. So, Temple is a success because she has learned to celebrate her strengths, not just compensate for her weaknesses.
If you’d like to learn more about what an autism diagnosis means and how best to support your child, feel free to contact us for help.
Autism can be overwhelming for new parents, but the right specialist can help guide you through your child’s early challenges. The Ed Psych Practice offers face-to-face and online assessments, consultation, advice, and problem-solving strategies for parents, nurseries, schools, and universities in London. We have psychologists, paediatricians, and therapists who can help assess your child and offer guidance and support. To consult with us or set up an appointment:
- Phone: +44 (0) 78 3344 7356
- Email: Office@TheEdPsych.com
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