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Girls With Autism

July 13, 2015

“One parent a few years ago did say that her daughter was cured and she was perfectly fine now. There is no cure. This is a lifelong disorder. What we are trying to do is to give her different strategies and ways of coping with it.” Julie Taylor, Teacher.
Limpsfield Grange in Surrey is the only state run boarding school in Britain specialising in girls with autism. The girls are all aged from 11-16 and more than half of them are on the autistic spectrum. Focusing on three very different pupils, Katie, Abigail and Beth, this one-off documentary follows them over the course of six months both at school and at home, to offer a unique insight into what it means to be autistic and a teenage girl. 
With increasing numbers of girls being diagnosed every year, the true extent to which girls suffer from the condition is perhaps only now being recognised. With extreme variations in how every girl presents, the school does it’s best to prepare each girl for an unforgiving outside world using a range of innovative methods, sometimes with tough love and always extraordinary patience.
Through these individual experiences we see how children with autism can struggle to make sense of the world around them, causing overwhelming anxiety. Repetitive behaviours, routine, and obsessions are all part of the condition. And the pressure of trying to negotiate friendship can often be the greatest anxiety and obsession of all. 
Teacher Mrs Chippington, also known as Mrs Chips, uses dogs Charlie and Bella in her lesson, acknowledging that some of the girls prefer spending time with animals because there is less pressure and they don’t say unkind things.
She explains: “They want to have friends. Having friends is so complicated. Friendships don’t follow set rules and that is really, really difficult for somebody who has autism.”
Abigail is the quietest member of the class and Mrs Chips is desperately trying to communicate with her. She is unsure whether Abi is selectively mute because it’s giving her control, or whether she has such high anxiety that she feels unable to speak. 
Sarah Wild, headteacher, explains: “Every girl here is a conundrum. They haven’t had any friendships, outside of their family probably. When they come in year seven, they have already experienced some depression, feelings of isolation, they are quite bullied, they’ve got really low self-esteem. You do have to be a detective to work here because you have to follow lots of different hunches and leads and you have to try things out.”   
Another pupil, 16-year-old Katie, has an obsession with boys. Katie describes herself:
“I am a funny girl. A special girl. I have got Asperger’s syndrome.  And ADHD. I feel strangers, sometimes are rude. Over the top. Crazy. I really like loud music. And I like dancing with boys. Especially holding their hands. Ben is my life. I have a boyfriend, and when I am not with him, I feel too sad.”
Autism can lead to obsessive behaviour and when a teenage girl with autism has those feelings for boys, it can lead to complicated and potentially risky situations.  
IT Teacher Sam Janaway explains: “One time that she did get things wrong was with my son. He was coming in once a week to help the girls with homework and Katie took a liking to him. That culminated in her going on to his Facebook page to download photos of him and I think she had several hundred pictures of him by the time we became aware of it.”
Most of the girls at Limpsfield Grange board on weekdays and are looked after by a dedicated care team, whose job is to teach the girls to become independent and to deal with their autism. 
Fourteen-year-old Beth has reluctantly started weekly boarding at Limpsfield Grange, after serious problems with her behaviour, both at home and in four previous schools. Beth now commutes 250 miles every weekend to the school. 
Julie Taylor, Beth’s head of year explains some of the issues involved: “She was an absolute nightmare, she was just head down on the desk, she was refusing to engage in any learning and walking out of class all the time. She was hospitalised over the summer. I think it was a suicidal attempt. She is sort of a jug that is nearly full and so it doesn’t take much to just spill over. It could be that her homework was too difficult, or it’s a Monday or she is just not feeling well. Or she’s missing her mother.”
Beth’s mum Emma says: “I searched high and low for schools in the area to avoid having to send her away. I knew she didn’t want to go away.  If there was a school like Limpsfield up the road, she would go there. We had everything, tears, screaming, shouting.”
Beth is determined to sabotage her place at school so she can return home. She admits to self-harming three times a day, every day. Beth says: 
“I have learnt how to fit in in a mainstream school and to get on like a normal teenager would. The girls here are weird and whacky and it’s hard.”
Meanwhile, Abigail is still not communicating and Mrs Chips is trying to help her learn to cope with her worries. At home she is very talkative, but her mum Sarah has recently been diagnosed with breast cancer. Sarah has explained her illness to Abi, who tells her she is going to die, despite Sarah’s assurances.
Sarah says: “They don’t understand it. You have to just accept them the way they are. You have to accept an autistic child. I think a lot of people who didn’t understand autism would probably be angry with what she sometimes says, you know. I accept it and I love her no matter what.”
At the end of the week all the girls head home to their families, including Beth who returns home to Warwickshire. Her mum Emma explains that Beth had surgery as a newborn baby due to hydrocephalus, a blocked duct in her brain. Sharing photographs, Emma recalls:
“It was about eight, her behaviour started to get worse and worse and you do think, ‘Oh what have I done? Have I spoilt her too much?’ But I knew that I hadn’t, I knew that I treated them all the same, but you do question everything.”
Beth was diagnosed with Asperger’s and then PDA (pathological demand avoidance), which is a sub type of autism but in Beth’s case it means she seeks to demand and control her environment and refuses to comply with simple demands. Whilst she has a close relationship with her sister Gracie now, mum Emma says:
 “She often used to say she wanted to get rid of Gracie. ‘I hate you, I am going to kill you. You know, I wish you’d never been born.’ And she would say to me, ‘Why can’t you send her away? Why can’t you get rid of her?’ And then it would keep escalating and move on from shouting, to getting a knife out of the drawer and running after. We had to put doors in between, whoever she was running at.”
Beth’s high anxiety means she will try to control and manipulate the staff at the school. The staff’s priority is to tackle her refusal to take part in lessons and they have a meeting to decide that a tough love approach is needed to achieve this.
Teacher Julie Taylor says: “With pathological demand avoidance we have to put a very tight, rigid structure around that student, and she will not like it.  And it’s a bit like reigning a horse in because it’s almost like a wildness there, that you have got to capture and train.” 
Abigail has made a new friend at school but still wont talk to the teachers, who feel she shouldn’t be boarding at the moment. Back at home, mum Sarah has undergone surgery to remove the cancer and admits that looking after Abi is mentally exhausting. 
In a scene which illustrates how autism can make her seem insensitive,  Abi tells her mother: “Shut it now old woman. Otherwise I will cut you in pieces.  And I will ask them if they can take you back to hospital again. And ask them to put you down.”
Back at school, Katie is pre-occupied by the approaching school disco and the boys who will be attending, in particular a boy called Alex from the nearby school. The teachers struggle to keep her focused on her mock GCSE exams.  
Katie tries to attract Alex at the disco but he is more interested in his friends. Instead she meets his brother Jamie, also autistic, and asks him to be her boyfriend. He agrees and Katie is beyond thrilled.
Shortly afterwards, Deputy Head Emma makes a breakthrough with Abi, having learnt that the key to getting her to communicate is to give her physical tasks to complete. The strategy is working – so much so that she inadvertently gives the newly helpful Abi a folder of the school’s cheques to deliver, which she promptly runs off with, causing much hilarity and anxiety for head teacher Sarah.
Sarah says: “Any lengths, we will try absolutely anything! You can take a dog for a walk with a child in the middle of a lesson if you need to, if you think that is going to do something to move a situation on or build a relationship.”
Abi is encouraged to write down her feelings, which it becomes clear mostly revolve around her mum undergoing chemo.  Through this emerging understanding of her emotions, and a growing friendship with a touchingly supportive classmate Lowri, Abi finally begins to open up, but as Mrs Chips says:
“This is a really long journey that we are on with Abi.  We’re not going to suddenly see a girl who is sitting engaging in all lessons, shooting her hand up to answer questions, initiating conversation with people.”
Beth’s situation also improves, as her confidence grows by getting positive attention for her achievements and her self-harm reduces.
As the end of the year approaches, Katie’s new boyfriend overwhelms her thoughts as she prepares for life after school. She does work experience in an old people’s home, where she is keen to tell a 90-year-old resident about Jamie. 
Katie’s dad Mark says: “I don’t think she’ll be able to live independently, ever, I don’t think. Unless she, you know, greatly improves, but I can’t see her…she’ll always need help.” 
Mum Julie adds: “You can never have a down day with her because she would always bring you up. She will bring joy to anybody that she meets. She is a special little girl, definitely.”
‘Girls With Autism’ tells three very different stories for a less familiar portrait of autism. Teenage girls who desperately want love and friendship, but just can’t quite understand how to go about it.
3 Comments leave one →
  1. July 14, 2015 8:29 am

    It’s heartbreaking to read this.

    We never could get a formal diagnosis for a family member – mostly because the family member refused to accept that there was a problem. As time has gone on, other psychological problems surfaced, so this person is in and out of hospital on section, yet they still haven’t given a formal diagnosis of Asperger’s and PDA, as far as I know in any case since this person banned us from knowing anything right from the first time they were sectioned. It’s so bad that we can’t see this person now without being accompanied by mental health staff or we become a ‘target’. But this person won’t have that, other than at birthday and christmas time.

    If only I could have got the support like those above in the early 2000s. All social services could offer me was the occasional meeting, where they told me I was a good mum, and that they couldn’t do anything else for me because I was doing what they would do, and that they couldn’t force this family member to have an assessment. But this isn’t good enough. You need the professional input like those youngsters above; a loving parent is no substitute.

    Well I’m glad that some families are now receiving such support. I think my family member is so far beyond messed up psychologically that nothing will now work. There must be many families like us.

  2. mark taha permalink
    July 16, 2015 2:19 pm

    I oppose boarding schools on principle and believe that no child should be forced to go to or stay at one. Can the girls do normal things like watching the soaps, using social media,or going out in the evening?


  1. Girls with Autism - Dancing Giraffe

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