Conference Call: Day 3 of the National Autism Conference - Education

August 04, 2010

Staff members and interns from Penn State Outreach are blogging from the National Autism Conference at The Penn Stater Conference Center Hotel throughout the week. The conference, which averages about 2,500 participants, features experts in autism, educators, autism advocates, people with autism and their families. In this summary of conference sessions, Erin Rowley, a senior majoring in journalism and history, blogs about issues that girls with autism face, and Kyle Casey, a senior majoring in public relations, blogs about sexual education for kids with autism. Both are interns with Penn State Outreach.

By Erin Rowley

The majority of people at the National Autism Conference are female, and on Wednesday (Aug. 4), there was a presentation just for them. Shana Nichols, director of the ASPIRE Center for Learning and Development in Melville, N.Y., spoke to a full conference room of more than 70 people -- mostly educators, but also parents and people on the autism spectrum -- about “Girls Growing Up on the Spectrum.”

Just being diagnosed can be a challenge for girls. Currently, the ratio of boys to girls with autism is 4 to 1, but Nichols said in reality it is probably more like 2.5 to 1, because autism often presents itself differently in girls and goes undiagnosed.

“It seems as if girls who are brighter and more verbal are often overlooked,” Nichols said. “People aren’t looking for the subtle signs. Girls often get diagnosed with ADD, social anxiety or depression instead of autism.”

Nichols said studies about autism generally include far more boys than girls, but she hopes that will change soon. She pointed out that recently, industry publications like Psychology Today have written pieces about girls with autism, and mainstream television programs like “Dateline” and even “America’s Next Top Model” have addressed female autism.

Allison Tremblay, 25, of West Chester, Pa., attended this session because she teaches a special education preschool class in which there are two girls on the autism spectrum.

“I’m hoping to see if there are differences in behavior between autistic boys and girls, and hopefully I can use that knowledge,” Tremblay said.

Nichols said the message of her presentation is that more research needs to be done to understand what autism looks like in girls, and that they face unique issues having to do with adolescence, puberty, abuse prevention and mental health.

“We need more awareness that autism can look different,” she said.

By Kyle Casey

For many parents, there is the dreaded “talk.” You know, the one about the birds and the bees.

Those words alone could make even the most open-minded parents cringe. And sexuality education doesn’t get any easier for parents of children with autism.

During a breakout session Wednesday (Aug. 4), Lisa Mitchell, a licensed clinical social worker, provided about 100 family members, teachers and social workers with a healthy and effective approach for teaching sexual education to people of all ages “on the spectrum.”

Mitchell was quick to point out that there can be serious need for sexual education for kids with autism. She said that children on the spectrum faced greater risk of sexual abuse compared to the average child. She added that this kind of education needs to be visual, concrete and repeated.

According to Mitchell, “Sexuality education increases the likelihood that individuals with disabilities will either have the skills to stay safe, or will be more likely to report victimization after it occurs.”

Mitchell also said that it is important for children on the spectrum to know what physical and emotional changes to expect before puberty occurs, so that they will be prepared to deal with those changes.

“I believe the family should be the primary sexual educator,” Mitchell said. “No one else knows your personal values.”

  • Lisa Mitchell discusses sexual education for children with autism during a breakout session at the National Autism Conference. For more details about the conference, click on the image above.

    IMAGE: Kyle Casey
Last Updated November 18, 2010