Girls, Puberty, and Asperger Syndrome

February 27, 2013

By Dan Coulter

I spent the last year in Girlworld.  And I learned a lot.

In the course of making a DVD to help girls deal with the physical, emotional and social changes brought on by puberty, my wife and I found out a lot about girls who have Asperger Syndrome.

We're known for making videos about Asperger Syndrome, and all our previous videos apply to both genders. So because about ten times more boys have been diagnosed with Asperger's than girls, you might ask, "Why is your first video to focus on one gender about girls?"

An increasing amount of evidence suggests that girls with Asperger Syndrome are dramatically under-diagnosed. The ratio of male to females with Aspergers is probably closer to 2.5 to 1 than 10 to 1. Girls also are diagnosed at later ages.

Some leading experts suggest that girls are less frequently diagnosed because Aspergers often presents differently in girls.

I've read that girls with Aspergers tend to do a better job than boys of observing and modeling others' behaviors to fit into a group. But they still don't understand the reasons for those behaviors, so they can only act as expected in specific situations. This sets them up for failure when they can't respond as expected to a situation that's only a bit different. So they might fit into a classroom, but not into a group of friends.

Research suggests girls' intense Asperger special interests tend to be in areas similar to other girls' interests. A girl fascinated by dolls or animals doesn't stick out as much as a boy obsessed with washing machines or train schedules.

Also, girls who are frustrated by Asperger Syndrome tend to internalize their problems, so they are more likely to respond with anxiety or depression in a situation where boys tend to respond with aggression.

Girls with Asperger Syndrome often don't meet enough of the boy-oriented Asperger criteria to trigger a diagnosis, but they present with many of the same actual difficulties. So they're stuck with the problems and fewer supports.

And girls face greater pressures in some areas than boys. Our mass media sends unrealistic messages that girls must have beautiful faces and perfect bodies. Especially in middle school, girls are more likely than boys to form groups for mutual support. A girl with Asperger Syndrome, who doesn't have the social skills to join such a group, may feel she has to face worries about breast development and the complications of dealing with periods, pads, and tampons on her own. Parents may think she understands more than she does because she's too embarrassed to ask questions.

And she's at greater risk of being taken advantage of if she doesn't have the knowledge to know when a boy is misleading her or the confidence to turn down sexual advances. Loneliness can make even smart girls vulnerable.

What can we do for girls who present with Asperger symptoms?

We can prepare them with knowledge, skills, and self-confidence.

KNOWLEDGE - Girls today are exposed to more explicit language and images than their parents at similar ages. They're also more likely to feel pressure to dress and act in a sexual manner. We need to prepare them with facts about sex, menstruation, reproduction, pregnancy, birth control, and preventing sexually transmitted diseases. And we need to help them understand when they'll be mature enough to make responsible decisions about having sex. Giving girls facts about sexuality does not mean encouraging them to have sex. It means preventing them from suffering anxiety or making mistakes through ignorance. Granted, some girls may be embarrassed to hear about sex from their parents. You may need to find videos, books, or other materials a girl can look at in private and then come to you with questions. Or she may feel more comfortable if she can go to a school counselor, older sister, or another girl closer to her age with her questions. Sensing what your daughter needs and finding a way to provide it is always a wise move. It's a good idea to preview materials yourself before sharing them with your daughter.

SKILLS - Basically, this means social skills. Learning what other girls -- and boys -- expect in a sufficient range of situations to be accepted in a social group can improve a daughter's self esteem, health and grades. And a support system of friends can be a layer of protection from male and female bullies and a buffer for potentially embarrassing period-related incidents. Again -- videos, books, and other materials can help, but it's even better if you can supplement them with a social skills class or club, or by practicing social skills at home.

SELF-CONFIDENCE - A good way to help a daughter develop confidence is to focus on her strengths. Feeling great that she's an expert in her special interest is a good way to counterbalance fears and uncertainty related to puberty. And you can transfer that confidence by replacing her puberty fears with facts about what's happening to her and why. Not knowing what to say or do in a social situation is paralyzing. Understanding what's expected and practicing until you're able to provide it is a confidence builder. Girls who think they have knowledge and skills, but don't, are set up for failure. Continually gauging your daughter's knowledge and skills and supplying what she needs can give her confidence a firm foundation.

So to answer the question of why a video for girls, we found that -- diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome or not -- many girls need special support preparing for and going through the difficult time of puberty.

During difficult times, it's natural for parents to see our daughters as the little girls they've been and want to protect them. But the best protection is to also look forward and help them become the women they want to be.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR - Dan Coulter is the author of the DVD, "Managing Puberty, Social Challenges, and (Almost) Everything - A Video Guide for Girls." You can find more articles and information on his website: coultervideo.com. (If you like the idea of this DVD, you can like it on Facebook at the Coulter Video site.)

Copyright 2013 Dan Coulter                   All Rights Reserved                   Used by Permission

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