Neurodivergent girls often miss out on support because they look like they are ‘doing ok’, when actually they’re not. Often, they’re internalising their traits to fit in socially or to stay safe. So, they can come across as quiet, articulate and keen to ‘do the right thing’.
Suppressing your traits like this can cause serious harm to your mental health. It’s exhausting, isolating and can lead to anxiety, depression and trauma. It’s also a risk marker for suicide. Also, when you’ve spent lots of time pretending to be someone else, it’s easy to forget who you really are. It’s harder to express your own wants and needs. And harder to keep yourself safe.
We know that neurodivergent girls can bloom if they:
- Are believed when they express what they need
- Know that they are enough as they are
- Feel that they belong
You are enough!
You might feel that you are neurodivergent in some way.
You might not have a name for it, and you might not have a diagnosis. But maybe you just feel that their brain processes information a bit differently from other people. That’s perfectly ok.
At the moment, the world is more designed for people with neurotypical brains than people with neurodivergent brains. That’s just because it’s currently believed that there are more neurotypical people in the world. But lots of people are questioning that now. At least 20 out of every 100 people are neurodivergent – but we’re sure there are more!
If you’re neurodivergent, it can be difficult living in a word that’s not yet designed for the way your brain works. Neurodivergent women often say that it feels that you’re always a step behind and can’t work out why – that you just don’t ‘do life’ as well as everyone else – and it feels like it’s all your fault.
“I burst into tears saying, ‘I am broken. There’s something wrong with me and I need you to work out what it is.’ “I thought that I wasn’t a worthwhile human. And I genuinely thought that I would never be fixed.” Holly Smale, author (interview with the BBC)
A lot of girls we know say they have felt a bit like this too. But they often feel a lot better when they find out that the reason, they feel different from others is because they are neurodivergent. That means that they just process information in a different, but equally valid, way from some of the other young people at school.
Knowing more about how your brain works and what you need to feel ok helps you be a bit kinder to yourself. Then you can get started on all the exciting things you dream about doing.
Finding your “tribe”
Everyone needs places where they are free to be completely themselves.
Sometimes, at school for example, you might feel that you have to try and ‘fit in’. That can be really tiring – and it’s not good for your mental health in the long run.
That’s because when you’ve spent lots of time pretending to be someone else, it’s easy to forget who you really are. It’s harder to express your own wants and needs. And it’s harder to keep yourself feeling happy and safe.
Research shows that having places you can be your true self is really good for your mental health. It’s a really good idea for you to have places you can relax, enjoy your interests and be your true self, if that feels ok for you. Hopefully, when you have a better understanding of yourself and is able to unmask, it will be easier for you to find the people (both neurodivergent and neurotypical) she you connect with as your true self.
Lots of neurodivergent people mask their neurodivergent traits to fit in socially, or to keep themselves safe. But masking neurodivergent traits a lot of the time can be really bad for your mental health. Here are some ideas about helping you drop your mask, if you feel safe to.
When they’re just not up to it
Listening to neurodivergent people about what they find difficult and when, and responding to those needs, is central to helping them feel comfortable and able to drop the mask. Even for parents or siblings who know a neurodivergent person really well, it can be difficult sometimes to spot the signs that they are struggling, although you are likely to know these signs better than many other people in their lives.
Reassuring someone that if they are feeling overwhelmed, or need to leave, or change something about the environment, then this is okay, and they can and should tell you so that you can help, can build a track record of them knowing that their experiences will be respected so they can drop the mask.
If you are in a situation that is more difficult for you to change or control (say, out of the house, or in a larger or more formal social situation) then establishing codewords that they can use to let you know that they are finding it difficult can also be useful. Having codewords, using them, and responding actively when they are used again helps build that understanding that you will do what you can to make them comfortable to the best of your ability at the time.
Ways to make your family a safe space to drop the mask
These will differ for every family. Good communication is central (and this does not just have to be verbal – responding to behavioural cues from your neurodivergent family member is also crucial). Building an environment where they know that they are valued for the person they are, that being autistic is not a bad thing, and that they can be proud of their strengths and supported in their difficulties – all of this will make your family feel like a safe and accepting space where the parts of the outside world that are too difficult don’t have to apply.
Doing this can also help to make the outside world easier, as having a secure base to return to at the end of the day makes it easier to cope with the challenges. Similarly, normalising conversations about why people do things that might be confusing can help build social insight and skills that your neurodivergent family member can then then use in their other interactions. “
Sensory processing needs
Neurodivergent people often get to see, hear, feel and taste things more intensely. They are not imagining it, and they’re not over-sensitive.
This can feel beautiful, but it can get overwhelming if her senses have to take in too much at once.
School can be really overwhelming to the senses because of all the unpredictable noise, lights and smells. This can really add up over the day. That’s why you might find that she is very overwhelmed after she comes home from school.
If school staff haven’t picked up that you’re neurodivergent and you are too anxious to express what makes you feel ok, they may not believe that you have any sensory needs. They might even get impatient with you about them, for example if you struggle with eating lunch or can’t concentrate in a noisy classroom.
Maybe your family don’t feel like they understand your sensory needs sometimes either. That might particularly be the case if they are neurotypical. You might say that something doesn’t feel right in your body but it doesn’t seem logical. For example, if they feel that the room is hot but you are getting distressed because you feel very cold. Or perhaps you get very upset when you has a little paper cut, and your parents don’t think it looks very painful.
If your parents are neurotypical, you experience the world through your senses in a different way, which may be hard for them to empathise with. But you are not imagining it.
Wellbeing and friendships
There is sometimes the assumption that neurodivergent girls are able to express themselves, socialise, and manage conflict in the same way as their neurotypical peers, yet some can find friendships and conflict difficult to manage and may need additional support.
Some neurodivergent girls can find it difficult to understand and describe feelings (known as alexithymia) and should be encouraged to express themselves in a way that works for them, whether this is using words, symbols, drawings, gestures or other means. Similarly, to improve wellbeing autistic girls need outlets for self-expression (for example music, art and crafts, movement activities, writing).
Neurodivergent girls can and do have good friendships but may do things differently to peers. They may socialise online or for shorter periods of time if they feel that the effort involved in socialising feels draining. Peers also need to be educated about neurodivergence – a greater acceptance of difference means neurodivergent girls won’t feel such pressure to adapt.
Not having a friend or a group of people to hang out with can feel socially isolating. While some people enjoy their own company and don’t feel the need to make friends, others can feel lonely, vulnerable, depressed, or alienated.
Tips for making friends
Autistic young people from our Ambitious Youth Network were asked what tips they had for other young people on making friends. They suggested:
- Speak to someone who you know has similar interests to you. Ask them questions about their own hobbies and interests.
- Don’t try to be friends with everyone – only make friends with people that make you feel happy.
- Put yourself out there if you can and remember that people want friends just as much as you do.
- Try joining online or in person communities based around something that you really like. The Ambitious Youth Network is a great way to connect with other autistic young people.
- Try to not over analyse social situations and just be yourself!
- Ask for support from your parents. They can help you to interact with people you want to be friends with.
- Be open about your interests and passions. Everyone likes different things, but people always like to find out new things, especially if you know a lot about them and get excited!