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Review of The Big Shout Conference: A clarion call to action

Sarah Wild.jpg

The Big Shout – Girls on the Austism Spectrum took place on Friday 27 January 2017 in central London. Sarah Wild (pictured), Head Teacher at Limpsfield Grange school for autistic girls, spoke at the sell-out event and shares her thoughts on the importance of the issues discussed. See below for more information about the event.

NAHT’s The Big Shout on Friday 27 January 2017 was a conference unlike any other; it was a clarion call to action.  For the girls and staff from Limpsfield Grange, the event was incredibly powerful. The number of people who attended the event, the distances they had to travel to attend; the stories that they told us, their enthusiasm to make things better was uplifting. It felt like joining a movement. It felt like finding your people.

Focusing on female autism, and exploring themes such as under diagnosis; research; parent and family support and education, the event highlighted both current knowledge about female autism and gaps in provision. For me, an important element of the day was inclusion of the autistic voice and experience, challenging stereotypes and breaking down misconceptions. Robyn Steward spoke about the power of believing in autistic girls to enable them to grow into successful and talented women. Katie Buckingham addressed issues of employment and surprised the audience by talking about autistic entrepreneurialism. 

The girls from Limpsfield Grange invited delegates to believe with them that “in the future autistic people can change the world for the better,” which reduced the audience to tears.

Parents of autistic girls talked about the need for strength courage and resilience, of hope and despair; of battles with schools, local authorities and mental health services to make sure that their daughter’s voices were heard, and lives valued.  Carrie Grant and Sophie Walker inspired delegates when talking about the need for greater partnership between parents and agencies. I hope that this message transcends the Victorian venue hall and lives in the hearts of the people who attended.

Leaders in the field of research, education and training addressed gaps in research, training packages and opportunities, under diagnosis and ways forward. Throughout each presentation came an urgency to make things better, to challenge the status quo and re-evaluate our long held perceptions about autism and autistic people. 

The day ended with the rallying cry of “together we can make a big difference and move forward.” The packed hall stood in solidarity at the end of the conference as delegates signalled their intent to take action, and improve awareness, acceptance and understanding about female autism. A spine tingling finale to an unforgettable day.

Sarah Wild is Head Teacher at Limpsfield Grange school for autistic girls in Surrey.

Read Carrie Grant's blog about the event here.

Outcome of The Big Shout - Experts call for action for girls on the autistic spectrum

School leaders, health and education experts, parents, carers and women on the autistic spectrum gathered in London on 27 January, at a conference organised by NAHT, to draw attention to the misinformation, under-diagnosis and lack of representation for girls on the autistic spectrum.

Russell Hobby, general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT, said at the event: “NAHT is delighted to be hosting this important conference, bringing together the foremost experts on autism and looking for ways school leaders can better understand and support girls on the autistic spectrum. Girls on the autistic spectrum have suffered for too long from a lack of investment and research into their condition, and the government must take note of this ‘Big Shout’ for action.”

Professor Francesca Happé, Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience at King’s College, London, and co-founder of the National Forum for Neuroscience and Special Education, said: “Until recently, it was thought that boys outnumbered girls on the spectrum by 5 or even 10 to 1. However, recent epidemiological studies suggest we are missing autism in females, and there are in fact only 2 or 3 times as many boys as girls affected. That means there are potentially thousands of girls on the spectrum who have not received a diagnosis, or maybe have the wrong diagnosis.

“We know that girls are often diagnosed with autism later than boys, and it may take more severe difficulties to bring a girl to clinical attention. When a teacher or doctor sees a boy not coping socially they are likely to think ‘autism’, but with a girl that’s not the case. We are still working with male stereotypes of autism.

“Much of the research into autism has been focused on boys, and has often explicitly excluded women and girls because of the assumption that they are very rare. This is a huge problem; our diagnostic criteria and processes are based on boys and may not serve girls well. For example, clinicians look for unusual special interests, like a fascination with electricity pylons, and may miss a girl with a very narrow and obsessive interest in (facts about) horses or a boy band, because those look on the surface like ordinary hobbies.

“The different social expectations on girls can mean that they feel more pressure to conform socially. Some young women tell us they tried to camouflage their autism by deliberately copying the clothes, speech and manner of a popular peer. This is exhausting and anxiety provoking, so that ‘flying under the radar’ likely comes at significant cost to the mental health of girls on the autism spectrum.

“Girls on the autism spectrum may also get in trouble with teachers and people in authority, because they don’t read social cues well or obey the unwritten rules of society. And diagnostic overshadowing means that a clinician may diagnose an eating disorder, but stop there and fail to see that this young women has an eating disorder and autism – and may therefore need a different sort of intervention.

“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.”

Professor Barry Carpenter CBE, Chair of the Autism and Girls Forum, said: “The aim for delegates at the conference was to share evidence and experience, thoughts and ideas, to develop a call for action that can be presented to politicians, professionals, families and the public. More focus on, resources for, and research into girls on the autistic spectrum is desperately needed.”

Carrie Grant, award-winning broadcaster and vocal coach, and campaigner for the celebration of neurodiversity, said: " With many women and girls living under the radar, some of whom have no diagnosis, let alone finding a voice, it is important that we who can speak up do so.

“As a parent I am doing all I can to make sure my autistic daughters are ready for the world. The bigger question is: Is the world ready for them? If our voice isn’t heard then the world will continue to live in ignorance and this often leads to a lack of compassion and understanding. These women and girls need to be heard and today the Big Shout begins.”

Girls on the Autism Spectrum: The Big Shout conference took place on Friday 27 January at the Grand Connaught Rooms, London.

Speakers included:

  • Professor Barry Carpenter CBE, Chair of the Autism and Girls Forum
  • Dr Rona Tutt OBE, Past President of NAHT and PhD in the education of children with autism
  • Professor Francesca Happé, Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience at King’s College, London, and co-founder (with Dr Rona Tutt OBE and Professor Barry Carpenter CBE) of the National Forum for Neuroscience and Special Education
  • Robyn Steward, author of The Independent Woman’s Handbook to Super Safe Living on the Autistic Spectrum
  • Carrie Grant, award-winning broadcaster and vocal coach, and keen campaigner for change in healthcare and education systems and for the celebration of neurodiversity

 Read Carrie Grant's blog about the event here.

Page Published: 31/01/2017