Social Skills Groups for Autistic/Aspie Girls
When I first began seriously looking into getting a diagnosis, I spent a lot of time searching for autism symptoms specific to girls and women and one of the most prolific sources I found was Dr. Tony Attwood. I recognize that Dr. Attwood may be controversial to some people because he still uses functioning labels and terms like “mild autism”, but I find his work invaluable. He has a wonderful grasp of the autistic/aspie experience, especially from a female point of view, and he can put things into words that I had struggled to explain for years. This blog, in fact, was inspired by Attwood’s idea of the “tribal elders” of the culture of ASD/Asperger’s: that those who get diagnosed later in life have wisdom to offer about what they did that helped them succeed, what they struggled with, and what would have helped when they were younger. I could still use some elders myself, but I can pass on what I’ve already learned. One of Attwood’s strategies that I especially love is social skills groups for autistic/aspie girls. I would love to set one up and run it myself if I could find a qualified professional to back me up.
Attwood’s groups for aspie girls are arranged to address the girls’ age-appropriate issues in elementary, middle, and high school. Most importantly, the groups are led by an adult aspie woman who can relate to their struggles and perceptions and offer advice. I guess you could think of it like an ASD girl scout troop – a female-only space, but also an ASD-only space, so that the girls have opportunities to be accepted by and make friends with other girls like themselves. The subjects covered vary by what the girls want to work on, but there’s usually some work on friendships, social skills, and self-esteem. I think this is brilliant and I wish I’d had something like this when I was a kid.
What I Would Do
As far as I know, there’s no proprietary element to these social groups, so here’s how I would run one of these myself. My ideas for an aspie girl group focus on two age groups, 11-13 and 14-17, or basically middle school and high school.
First, I would have rules. I think this would be good for autistic girls because it defines how they (and all the adults involved) are expected to act in this setting.
- Pay attention to the person who’s speaking however is best for you. (Eye contact not required – if you need to look away or fidget in order to focus on what’s being said, that’s fine.)
- Don’t interrupt the person speaking/Respect the “talking stick”. (My “talking stick” would actually be a weighted stuffed animal – I keep thinking a lizard – with nice material for tactile stimming while you talk. This rule helps with impulse control and learning the give and take of conversation, plus the basic social skill of not interrupting people.)
- We’re all friends here, we’re respectful and kind to each other, we don’t laugh at each other. (This assurance of not being ridiculed helps everyone feel safe enough to be honest about their struggles and to be themselves.)
- We all wear name tags every session. (This helps all of us learn names and be comfortable with each other instead of trying to remember who people are. They won’t have to go around and introduce themselves every time; I’ll do that for them to take the pressure off.)
Acknowledge the Struggle is Real
Next, I would make sure to validate any struggles the girls bring up. Around sixth grade, a lot of kids are monsters and that’s just how it is. Autistic or aspie girls who don’t mask well are almost guaranteed to experience bullying, teasing, and ostracization because that’s the currency of the female social structure. It sucks and it’s really awful and I want those girls to know that you can live through that and things do get better with time.
There are lots of little everyday struggles that autistic girls may be dealing with, from trying to explain to their parents why they can’t stand particular clothes or foods to having trouble concentrating in school because of fluorescent lights or the sound of a teacher’s voice. NT parents or professionals are unlikely to understand these issues, but women with ASD will recognize them easily. Even if I can’t give them a fix for all of those problems, I can at least let them know they’re not crazy or alone.
Tips and Tricks
Here’s where the “tribal elder” idea really comes into play. As part of these groups, I would offer tips, tricks, and lifehacks for being autistic in the NT world. Some of it would be along the same lines as things I’ve posted here, like how to fake eye contact and how to support executive function. But I’d also have a question box that the girls could drop questions into, which I’d either answer each session or work up a presentation for another time. Some girls might wonder if they have to wear makeup to “be a girl” or how to deal with having a crush on someone, or they might have an issue with an insensitive teacher or wondering how to ask for help when they’re struggling in class. Whatever the kids need to ask, I’ll do my best to answer, and the psychologist or other professional backing me up can help keep me on topic.
Building Skills Without Pressure
Here’s why I think these groups are such a great idea for autistic/aspie girls. They let the girls practice social skills like reading facial cues and body language, listening, and interacting in a low-stakes, low-pressure environment. The relaxed atmosphere, where they won’t be forced to “act normal” like they might be at school, gives them the space to be themselves, whatever that entails. And when the girls have questions about anything or stumble in their social interactions, they can get clear explanations from people who speak their language instead of being told they’re stupid or weird for not knowing. On top of that, because all autistic people are different, some girls will be better at some things and some will be better at others, so they will be able to help each other and gain confidence as they teach others.
I really wish I’d had access to something like this when I was a kid. It would have been a great help and it would have been awesome to see an adult who was like me but had learned how to get along in the world. I’ve mentioned this to a couple of therapists here in town but so far nothing has come together. If you’re interested in leading a group like this or you have an aspie girl in your life, I suggest you look into setting something up.
Do you have any experience with a group like this? Any suggestions to make it even more ASD-friendly or comfortable? I think the low-pressure is great, but do you think it would be better if it was more regimented? Do you think this could work with adults, as well?