Girls with autism – a hidden issue?

Three young girls hanging upside down in a park and laughing

by Stacey Dingwall

At the end of last month, the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) held its Big Shout conference in London. The event gathered together school leaders, health and education experts, parents, carers and women on the autistic spectrum with the intention of raising awareness of the ‘underdiagnosis of thousands’ of girls with autism.

Gender difference in diagnosis

The National Autistic Society points to various studies that estimate the ratio of male/female autism diagnosis as being anywhere from 2:1 to 16:1. Last year, the National Association of Special Educational Needs (nasen) published a guide to supporting girls with autism spectrum conditions which states that the ratio is typically regarded as 4:1. The guide notes that this is an average figure, and that the ratio increases to 10:1 among intellectually able individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), and shrinks to 2:1 for groups with ASD and moderate to severe learning disabilities.

Nasen suggests that this gender difference has only recently been questioned, and points to several possible explanations for the variation:

  • Gender bias in existing screening and referral processes, diagnostic criteria and tools
  • Protective and compensatory factors in females
  • Different gender-specific autism spectrum condition (ASC) profiles

Nasen points to research going back as far as 1944 which found that while the girls who took part in the research displayed signs that were “reminiscent of autism”, they were not as “fully formed” as those seen in the boys.

As noted by Francesca Happé of the MRC Social, Genetic and Developmental Psychiatry Centre at King’s College London, diagnostic systems, as well as research studies and stereotypes of ASD, are still based on the experiences of males to this day. Despite evidence which indicates differences between girls’ and boys’ social-communication skills – an important factor in the diagnosis of ASD – girls are being assessed using a system that is biased towards the opposite gender.

The only specialist state school in the UK

Limpsfield Grange school in Surrey is the only state school for girls with autism in the UK. Headteacher Sarah Wild believes that girls can often go undiagnosed due to their tendency towards ‘masking’. She suggests that autistic girls are often more interested in socialising and building relationships than their male peers, and learn to copy the behaviour of those around them from an early age as a coping strategy.

Nasen makes a similar point with regards to the topics that girls with autism can become obsessive about, which is often a neurological sign of autism. Girls’ special interests can tend to materialise in areas such as boybands, or looking after animals – interests that don’t seem out of the ‘ordinary’ for their age group. Boys, on the other hand, are more likely to focus on technical, niche topics that can make diagnosis more straightforward.

Sarah Wild is not a fan of the word ‘diagnosis’ when it comes to autism, which she thinks “makes it sound like cancer” or another illness. As opposed to US schools which focus on “curing”, Limpsfield Grange employs a ‘hybrid’ model that focuses on moving away from the medical model and towards the social integration model in place in Australia.

Taking action

As the only school of its kind in the UK, Limpsfield Grange recognises its important role in raising awareness of females with autism. The school has published two novels that follow the journey of an autistic girl called M, and made a documentary that was shown on ITV in 2015.

Speaking at the Big Shout, Professor Francesca Happé said that “Unless we change our male stereotypes of autism, and find out much more about female autism, girls will continue to miss out on the recognition and support in childhood that could have helped them to understand themselves and interact with others, to fulfil their potential.”

Her words were echoed by Professor Barry Carpenter, Chair of the Autism and Girls Forum, who said that action from politicians and researchers in this area was “desperately needed”.


Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in public and social policy are interesting our research team. If you found this article interesting, you may also like to read our other articles on children and young people.

What’s going on in our universities … and what does the crisis around campus sexual harassment say about our society?

by Stacey Dingwall

One of the most worrying elements of Donald Trump’s election campaign was his apparent attitude towards women. Critics have highlighed a wide range of sexist comments made by the now President-elect over the years – comments he now claims to regret and has apologised for.

The continuing problems of ‘isms’

Sexism is just one of the ‘isms’ that we seem unable to get rid of, despite efforts to create a more tolerant and diverse society. We’ve highlighted this several times on the blog this year; from the persistent gender pay gap to an increase in hate crime. Yet it seems we are still frustratingly far from living in an equal society.

Trump’s critics have suggested that it is in fact insecurity that has driven him to make some of his remarks. Although it is true that large numbers of (white) women voted for him, it has also been argued that part of his success is down to “angry white men” who feel threatened by the progress made by women, ethnic and other minorities towards the creation of a more equal society.

Sexual violence on campus

The all too frequent accounts of sexual harassment on university campuses around the world represent a particularly ugly aspect of enduring inequality within our society. While the media may focus on incidents occurring within the fraternity system in American campuses, the problem is just as bad in Britain. In September, a poll conducted by the charity DrinkAware indicated that 54% of the female students they surveyed had experienced some form of physical or verbal sexual abuse.  15% of male students reported similar experiences.

It’s not only male students who are subjecting their peers to this abuse, or female students who are on the receiving end. Last month, more than 100 women – students and academics – shared their experiences of sexual harassment and abuse at the hands of male university staff.  The stories depict a culture dominated by the male voice, in which women are frightened into silence rather than taking action against their abusers. Many of the victims indicated feelings of futility in terms of reporting their experience, due to the perpetrators’ power and status. Those who did have the courage to make a complaint reported their frustration at the limited action taken.

How is this being addressed?

Recent reviews by the National Union of Students (NUS) and Universities UK have made recommendations to universities on how to tackle sexual harassment on their campuses. A particular focus has been on implementing policies to prevent and deal with the issue: both reviews found that institutions sometimes didn’t have a sexual harassment policy at all, or it was ineffectively tied in with an overarching policy on bullying and harassment.

Universities UK’s review highlights several examples of good practice from universities in terms of improving the reporting process (the University of Cambridge), implementation of policy (SOAS, University of London), and establishment of taskforces to both raise awareness of and deal with sexual violence on campus (Durham University Sexual Violence Task Force).

More prevention work needed

While it’s encouraging that universities are taking action to respond to this problem, and work is also being done in terms of communicating that campuses should be a safe space for all, the majority of initiatives are focused on dealing with the aftermath of abuse rather than prevention. This is similar to the message often communicated by the media and others that people (predominantly women and girls) should take steps to ‘avoid’ being attacked or raped, rather than communicating to men and boys that they shouldn’t perpetrate these crimes in the first place.

While girls are fed these messages from an early age both at home and at school, there is no similar onus placed on their male peers to learn about consent at the same time. The fact that the debate over the provision of a sex education that is appropriate for the society in which we currently live remains unresolved unfortunately means that these depressing statistics on sexual violence in our universities are unlikely to improve in the near future.

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Why do more girls than boys go on to higher education?

Metal signpost indicating directions of three world famous universities - Harvard / Cambridge / Oxford

by Stacey Dingwall

In February of this year, ministerial guidance was issued to the Office for Fair Access (OFFA) on doing more to widen the participation of disadvantaged groups in higher education. This was accompanied by the issuing of new access agreement guidance to universities and colleges which, for the first time, specified that they should be doing more to widen access among white men from economically disadvantaged groups.

The new guidance came after Prime Minister David Cameron raised concerns about a lack of diversity in the country’s higher education sector in an article for the Sunday Times in January. While David Cameron’s main criticism was of the lack of students from ethnic minority backgrounds being admitted to elite universities like Oxford, he also noted that “white British men from poor backgrounds are five times less likely to go into higher education than others”.

What does the evidence say?

The Prime Minister’s statement about the gender gap is backed up by two key sources. In their 2015 End of Cycle report, the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) reported that, while entry rates for both male and female students increased, female entry rates increased three times faster than those of males. At 35.4%, the admission rate for 18 year-old female students was 9.2 percentage points higher than male students, making them 35% (proportionally) more likely to attend university. This equates to 36,000 fewer young men than women entering higher education each year and is the widest gap yet recorded by UCAS – in 2007, woman were 27% more likely to attend university. Furthermore, the report notes that female students from the most disadvantaged areas were 51% more likely than their male peers to enter higher education in 2015. Also highlighted is that while female students across all ethnic groups are more likely to attend university than males, the gap is significantly smaller than that between white students: the next greatest gap is between male and female black students, at a ratio of 1.4. This gap has also narrowed since 2006.

In July of last year, the Sutton Trust’s Independent Commission on Fees published its final report. The Commission was set up in 2011 with the aim of analysing the effect of increased tuition fees on students. While the report found that the number of students applying to university had not been significantly impacted by the increase, it did find that certain groups had been adversely affected. These groups included male students from disadvantaged areas: the report suggested that they are 48% less likely to enter higher education than female students in the same circumstances. The Commission also found that this gap is widening rather than narrowing, indicating that there are areas of the country in which males are facing particular cultural challenges, which could result in “the entrenchment of low income and lack of opportunity”.

Why does this gender gap exist?

The Commission’s findings were widely reported in the press at the time. The key question: why has this happened? Analysis of last year’s GCSE results in England found that the gender gap between boys and girls is at its narrowest in decades, and male pupils’ A-level results are also only slightly below the female average. So why are so many male students choosing to end their educational careers at this stage?

According to Mary Curnock Cook, the chief executive of UCAS, the potential of these students is “somehow being let down by the school system”. Cook’s argument suggests that schools are not doing enough to adequately prepare and inspire their male students to continue their education after school. Brian Lightman, of the Association of School and College Leaders, however, has taken an opposing stance on this, and suggests that the narrowing of the attainment gap between male and female pupils can in fact be attributed to schools more closely monitoring the performance of boys. He also believes that changing the focus of assessment from coursework to more exams has in fact resulted in the system now being in favour of male pupils.

The impact of the introduction of tuition fees must also be acknowledged. Speaking to the Guardian in March of this year, male pupils at a school in Ipswich where double the national average of pupils are in receipt of pupil premium funding expressed their unwillingness to enter into years of substantial debt for a course where there is no guarantee of a job at the end. This sentiment perhaps explains why the number of students taking up paid apprenticeships increased by 63.5% between 2010 and 2011. A different group of students from south London also raised the issue of social class. A lot of these boys would be the first in their families to attend university. Their admissions of not wanting to stand out academically for fear of what others may think, or seeming like an “outsider’ reveal the impact that growing up in a disadvantaged area can have on aspiration.

Others suggest that the problem lies in the structure of the post-compulsory education system. Courses in which female students have traditionally dominated, such as fashion and beauty, are increasingly being changed from college courses to three-year undergraduate courses, while qualifications for bricklaying and plumbing continue to be studied at further education and apprenticeship level. Recent years have also seen a focus on campaigns to try and encourage more female students to study more science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) -related courses, for example, without equivalent targeting of male pupils.

What is being done to reduce the gap?

Following the guidance issued to the OFFA, universities minister Jo Johnson announced that the government had also asked universities to move towards a name-blind admissions system by 2017, and would introduce legislation to scrutinise the process in order to reveal where offer rates for the poorest students were particularly low. Johnson explained that the guidance asks universities, in return for the access agreements that allow them to charge fees up to the maximum of £9,000, to focus more strategically on groups, such as white British boys, with the lowest participation rates by “spending smarter” and focusing their outreach activities where they are most needed.

The answer, it would seem, is for all stakeholders to “do more”. However, despite the government setting a target to double the amount of poorer pupils admitted to university, a specific campaign aimed at narrowing the divide has yet to be announced. It could be argued that placing the onus on universities to increase the number of admissions of white male students is the wrong answer – some, like Tony Sewell, former teacher and CEO of education charity Generating Genius, argue that this is a problem that needs to be addressed at a much earlier stage, as the gap shows signs of developing from primary level.

Overall, it would appear that addressing issues around social class in the system is key to stopping the divide from increasing any further. While Oxford University rebutted the Prime Minister’s assertion that it did not do enough to attract pupils from all walks of life, the figures speak for themselves: the most advantaged students are still 6.8 times more likely to go to the most elite universities than disadvantaged students. The Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission regularly reports on a growing social divide in the country, including a system which continues to grant access to the elite universities according to family background rather than aptitude and ability. As the Commission’s latest state of the nation report notes, there is little chance of the government meeting its target until outreach activity becomes more focused on the areas where access is particularly low.

Girls need STEM role models

female scientist

by Stacey Dingwall

The fact that women are underrepresented in STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) careers in the UK is not news – figures released by the government in August 2013 revealed that despite making up 46% of the UK workforce, just 15.5% of the STEM workforce are women. A new report published by ScienceGrrl, a not-for-profit grassroots organisation which aims to celebrate women in science, has highlighted perhaps one of the biggest reasons why there are so few women working in, and girls aspiring to work in, STEM related fields – a lack of role models.

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