Staff from twenty schools across Oxfordshire gathered at LVS Oxford on Friday 1st December as the school hosted the first of a series of events aimed at sharing expertise in educating people about autism. LVS Oxford invited guest speaker Deirdre Nic Sitric to discuss ways in which schools can help improve the support given to girls in the county who are on the autism spectrum.
Deirdre runs Autism Champions, a specialist team of trainers, and has 18 years of experience working with children and adults across the spectrum, whether they have high functioning autism or Asperger’s or have classical autism with and without other learning difficulties. She led the workshop, which was attended by special educational needs co-ordinators, teachers and teaching assistants from schools across Oxfordshire, and talked about how common it is for girls with autism to not have a formal diagnosis and therefore a lack of much needed support strategies to help them cope. Deirdre’s session helped to talk through various ways to overcome that.
LVS Oxford was the perfect venue for the event with a wide range of expertise amongst staff in developing the prospects of students with autism, and a large number of autistic girls at the school, with ten currently on the register. Head of School Louisa Allison-Bergin introduced the training session and said: “This workshop was so important as educators in mainstream schools clearly want to do the very best for all their students and need the knowledge to be able to identify girls who may be struggling in silence. With the right support, as the right time, these girls can thrive and achieve great things. We just need to ensure that they don’t slip under the radar as that is doing them a great injustice. We have had excellent feedback from the delegates who attended this session and will be announcing details for our next ‘Moving Forward’ workshop in the new year.”
LVS Oxford’s Head Girl, Caitlin Ireland, met with Deirdre and is an example of how girls with autism can progress when well supported. Caitlin, 17, who was diagnosed with autism in 2014, said: “Before my diagnosis, I was very anxious about things like homework and wouldn’t be able to cope when given essays to write. It would get so bad that I would have to have time off school, but I was reluctant to speak to teachers about it as I didn’t want to get into trouble. At LVS Oxford, I feel very supported and I rarely experience the levels of anxiety that I did in mainstream. My diagnosis was actually a big relief and I started to understand the reason why I experienced certain difficulties and, with the help of my family and staff at school, I had the confidence to work with the feelings, rather than against them.”
Speaking after the workshop, Deirdre Nic Sitric said: “Autism has historically been considered a predominantly ‘male brain’ condition so in the past it wasn’t on the radar of parents, educators and health professionals when dealing with girls. Girls tend to be better than boys at masking their difficulties and are generally better at mirroring friends to cover up their social communication and relationship issues. However, they pay a price for keeping things together during the school day. Autistic girls are at much higher risk of mental health difficulties. This workshop looked at the challenges that autistic girls face and the differences between boys and girls’ experience of autism. I was absolutely delighted by the positive reaction to the session, which is the first in a series on various aspects of autism in collaboration with LVS Oxford.”
Feedback from those present at the workshop was hugely positive and Victoria Davis, who has an autistic daughter and works at an Oxford school, said: ““It was really useful to learn from Dee, whose insights into brain research were fascinating. We all want the best for young people on the autistic spectrum and I think this session gave us valuable insights into what girls with autism are thinking and feeling, and how we need to be extra observant with girls. I’ll definitely be sharing what I’ve learnt with my colleagues back at school.”
Many of the tasks the students undertake will help build competencies in citizenship, relating to others, managing situations and working as part of a team - all key to being fulfilled and employable adults.