Why does my daughter throw a massive tantrum when I brush her hair or put her socks on? Why is she incapable of hearing bad news without working herself up into a frenzy? Why does she have a hissy fit whenever there’s a change of plan? And why, oh why, can she behave perfectly at school all day, but turns into a screaming she-devil the second she gets home? The answer is simple: my daughter is a drama queen.
Or is she?
If you can identify with everything I’ve described in the first paragraph, there’s a possibility your daughter might not be a drama queen at all, but might instead be on the autism spectrum. If we remove terms like ‘tantrum’, ‘frenzy’, ‘hissy fit’ and ‘screaming she-devil’ and replace them with the idea that she could be desperately trying to communicate her feelings to you, or even having a meltdown (something that’s easily mistaken for these things but is very, very different) there’s a much better chance of finding some solutions and forging a positive way forward that works for both of you.
When it comes to hair brushing and sock wearing, it’s important to realise that being overwhelmed by the input they receive from their senses can be one of the biggest day-to-day challenges autistic people have to face. It’s caused by something called sensory processing disorder, or SPD as it’s known, which means that not only can they often see, hear, taste, touch, smell and feel things far more acutely than other people, but they find it almost impossible to prioritise these sensations, so more often than not they’re experienced as being incredibly intense and even painful. Brushing tangles from your daughter’s hair might be agonising for her, and the seams on her socks rubbing against her toes could make her feel like she’s treading on razor wire. My advice would be to invest in a Tangle Teezer and a good quality detangling spray, and think about buying some seamless socks. In my experience these can be pretty expensive though, so if you can’t afford them, I’d suggest turning her socks inside out – it’s always worked like a charm in our house.
Handling your daughter’s explosive reactions when she hears anything distressing can seem impossible, but when you understand what’s making her respond this way, her behaviour can actually make a lot of sense. Autistic girls are sometimes referred to as ‘little philosophers’ because of their deep, almost mystical connection with nature, animals and the world as a whole, and not only are they connected with it, but they feel its pain as if it were their own.
Far from lacking in compassion as many people believe them to be, girls on the spectrum (and boys too, for that matter) often have something called ‘hyper-empathy’ where they experience the suffering of others at such a profound level that they’re overcome with grief at the very thought of it. This means handling bad news is definitely not their strong suit, and just for good measure, they can sometimes experience a delay in processing difficult feelings, which leads to what looks like a massive overreaction to a very minor incident, but is in fact a sign that they’re expressing their grief for something else entirely – something that’s been building inside them for a while but they simply found too painful to process at the time.
Meanwhile, dealing with change is something everyone on the spectrum struggles with. There are so many different reasons for this, but in a nutshell, their world is often too big, too bright, too fast and way too confusing to handle at the best of times, so throwing unexpected changes into the mix will inevitably upset them and make them feel out of control. What your daughter needs in these situations is for you to stay calm (believe me, I know it’s hard) and help her find ways to overcome her uncertainty and reduce her anxiety.
One of the best ways I’ve found to achieve this is to help my children learn relaxation techniques – my therapy programmes are ideal for this – because as we all know, the only certain thing in life is change, so with the best will in the world you’re not going to be able to shield your children from it all the time.
Other than that I’d suggest using countdown timers to help the transition from one thing to another, because sometimes all your daughter will need is a bit of extra time to mentally prepare herself when things change. Visual timetables are really useful too and can make it much easier to understand what you’ve got planned; they’re also a great way to show how events can be moved around without disappearing entirely from the day’s activity list.
Finally, as many parents are all too aware, one of the most difficult things about having a girl on the spectrum can be getting a diagnosis in the first place. This is partly due to the fact that despite some improvement in recent years, diagnostic tests aren’t really designed to accommodate girls (so they don’t tick all the right boxes to qualify as autistic). Girls tend to be better at picking up social cues than boys, and more focussed on relationships rather than objects. They’re also more interested in pretend play, so it’s easy to see why so many of them ‘fail’ their autism assessments.
Another reason however, is that girls very often exhibit behaviour called ‘passing’, ‘masking’ or ‘camouflaging’ – in other words doing whatever it takes to be invisible in a crowd no matter how much stress it’s creating inside them, and the reason for this – put simply – is that they’re hard-wired to want to fit in.
As a result, autistic girls are often model pupils: neat, organised, polite and beautifully behaved, while struggling to hold things together on the inside and becoming gradually more and more overloaded with the stress of following all the rules. This leads to something known as the ‘delayed after effect’ when all their pent-up emotion comes rushing out in an overwhelming torrent as soon as their brain feels it’s safe to relax. ‘And when might that be?’ I hear you ask. Yes, you’ve guessed it: when they get home from school.
I explain why this happens in much more detail in my book, as well as outlining what to expect if your daughter is autistic. If she is, then Jennifer O’Toole’s ‘Sisterhood of the Spectrum’ and ‘Aspergirls’ by Rudy Simone are both great books that offer plenty of advice on living with autistic girls (and on being one yourself, of course).
Probably the best piece of advice I can give you though, if you’re parenting a girl on the spectrum, would be to accept her as she is and let her be herself. Help her to manage strong emotions without making her think she’s ‘just being silly’ or ‘making a fuss about nothing’. Find the strategies that suit her personality and help her incorporate them into her daily routine, so she grows up understanding the importance of self-care.
She might need lots of high-energy activities to help her let off steam, or she might prefer to curl up with a good book and enjoy her own company, quietly processing her thoughts in the privacy of her room. She could be obsessed with fashion and adore anything pink and glittery, or be more comfortable in well-loved t-shirts and worn out joggers. Either way, as long as she’s happy, let her get on with it and teach her to be proud of her choices.
The world will come along way too soon and try to push her into thinking she’s not clever enough, not thin enough, not beautiful enough, and not plain good enough, and when it does, make sure her self-esteem is so high that she pushes right back and stands her ground. There’s no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way to be a girl (check out the excellent A Mighty Girl for inspiration and female role models galore) so whoever she is, encouraging her to be proud of her individuality and showing her how to handle the challenges it brings are two of the most important things you can do for your daughter, whatever her age or ability.