LVS Oxford brought together teaching and support staff from schools around Oxfordshire last month to offer guidance on managing mental health challenges in girls with autism. The school shared its knowledge and welcomed guest speaker Deirdre Nic Sitric, from Autism Champions, on Friday 27th April to help enhance the skills and understanding of a host of teachers and other professionals who work in the field.
With Mental Health Awareness Week in May, the conference was a timely session to share best practice and use the school’s voice of authority to ensure wider understanding of the issues faced by girls with autism. High profile campaigns such as Heads Together, spearheaded by The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and Prince Harry, are helping to reduce the stigma around anxiety and depression. However this can be magnified greatly for those with autism who struggle to identify with their feelings and those of others, and the conference sought to help alleviate this.
Louisa Allison-Bergin, Head of School at LVS Oxford, said: “We had a fantastic response to our first Girls with Autism conference in December. This second training session highlighted the need for a greater understanding of what it feels like to be a young person with autism. They have increased challenges with friendships, understanding social cues and remaining calm when everything around them is a source of discomfort, pain and worry. A high percentage of girls with autism feel like the odd one out in peer groups and struggle hugely with putting their emotional difficulties into words. Instead of feeling supported, they often feel overwhelmed by the adults around them and find it so hard to keep things together during the day that, as soon as they get home or even as soon as they see their parent at pick up time, the difficulties of the day can send them into a meltdown that might last for hours.”
Mental health challenges came out as one of the hardest areas for professionals and parents to feel confident about in relation to supporting young girls. Around 40% of people with autism suffer from an anxiety disorder, compared to 15% of the general population. Depression is also more common amongst those with autism1.
Amelia Dean, a sixth former at LVS Oxford who was diagnosed with autism when she was in year 5, said: “I always found it very hard to explain how I was feeling and always felt like the odd one out. I got support from my family but at school they didn’t know how to handle me. I attended two secondary schools, neither of which worked for me, and then had 3 ½ years out of school. I joined LVS Oxford in September 2017 and this has been the first school that has been positive for me. I have friends and great support from staff, particularly my sixth form tutor. I feel positive about my future for the first time in a long time, which is a big relief.”
For the second consecutive LVS Oxford conference guest speaker Deirdre Nic Sitric, from Autism Champions and with eighteen years of experience working with children and adults across the autism spectrum, shared her knowledge with the many visiting schools to help them enhance their approach to girls with autism. She led the workshop and explained: “Girls with autism can become expert at modelling what those around them are doing so it appears that they are coping. They mask their true feelings and often experience a full spectrum of emotions but aren’t able to link these emotions with feelings that they recognise, such as happiness, sadness and disappointment. Each case is individual so it is impossible to deliver training that provides all the answers. However my main message is that we need to validate what these girls are telling us and we need to become much better at watching them and looking out for the signs of distress that may not seem obvious on the surface. I have been extremely encouraged by the excellent responses we have received to these conferences and feel there is definitely a strong desire from teachers and other professionals to improve the support we provide going forward.”
Students make good progress in their learning because they are taught well and they follow a good, creative and innovative curriculum that meets their needs.