Struggles, hope and opportunity

Girls and Autism: Educational, Family and Personal Perspectives, by Barry Carpenter, Francesca Happé and Jo Egerton (eds) (Routledge; pb £29.99). Reviewed by Eloise Stark.

This collection of voices is not simply a review of the current knowledge and perspectives on girls and women with autism, but a manifesto. Whether you’re a teacher, clinician, parent, or autistic female yourself, you can play a part in effecting meaningful change.

What does it mean to be a girl with autism in 2019? The book cleverly views this question from a multitude of angles, all of which chime with my own experience. During diagnosis, you might be left waiting, misunderstood, or judged against predominantly male criteria. In society you might be marginalised, stereotyped, or suffer from mental illness due to the strains of trying to fit into a neurotypical lifestyle. Within the education system, you might be frustrated, unsupported, and even excluded. Having struggled myself at mainstream school to fit in and behave according to the ever-confusing and multidimensional social rules, the book captures these struggles with painful accuracy.

But this book also talks of hope and opportunity. With flexibility, realistic expectations and understanding, these ‘lost’ girls can ‘find’ an identity and a way of living successfully in a neurotypical world. The example of Limpsfield Grange School for girls with communication and interaction needs shines out through insightful and eloquent comments from current students. Empathic and dedicated parents can mitigate many adversities, as demonstrated by the voice of parent Carrie Grant.

I would urge you to read this important discourse yourself, but if you’re pushed for time, here are three key messages that run through the whole book.

First, ‘female does not equal not-male’. It is clear from the voices and profiles of autistic girls within the book that the autistic female is developing an identity of its own. We need to value an individual’s strengths and individuality above their challenges.

Second, community is important. Autistic girls and women need support, but they can also support each other, such as in the ‘Girls Group’ discussed by Sharonne Horlocke in Chapter 7. ‘Alone we can do so little. Together we can do so much’, quotes Sarah Wild.

Lastly, I would like to reiterate the message of Katie’s dad (Chapter 3), whose anecdote about difference not being an impediment to progress has really stuck with me: ‘Some cars are petrol and others are diesel, but they all get to where they need to be.’

- Reviewed by Eloise Stark, DPhil Candidate in Psychiatry at the University of Oxford.


See also her article in autism in women, and our 2014 interview with Francesca Happe.

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