There is evidence that a growing number of autistic adolescent girls stop attending mainstream secondary schools in England, but little is known about why this is happening or what needs to change. The historical underdiagnosis of autistic girls has meant their stories have been absent from research into autism and into the ways in which they are excluded from education.
This talk outlines how topical life histories were gathered from eight adolescent academically able autistic girls, who had started mainstream secondary school but who were not currently attending, positioning the girls’ voices as key to understanding their lack of access to education. The girls generated timelines to chart pathways to absence, marking memories of significant positive and negative school events, and identified themes in unhelpful or harmful experiences.
Findings from my research identify that disengagement from school was not a rejection of learning, but of a toxic environment, often after the girls had persevered for years. Absences began when needs were underestimated or misunderstood, resulting in high levels of anxiety and frustration, bullying, and increased isolation, often accompanied by a deterioration in mental and physical health. Prioritising pupil well-being through nurturing, responsive relationships and environments emerged as key recommendations for schools.