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‘My daughter struggles to make friends and is anxious going to school. Could she be autistic?’

Ask the Expert: I came across an article on autism and it was like a light-bulb moment

My 11-year-old daughter is in fifth class and is struggling to make friends. We found out a group of girls were excluding her. Apparently she was constantly seeking to hang out with them and they gave her the cold shoulder. I was very angry, but you can’t force the girls to include her. The teacher has been understanding and supportive but my daughter still is quite isolated.

She is often anxious going to school and stressed when she comes home. I take her to GAA and every activity possible to expose her to lots of potential friends, but she finds it hard to join in with children her own age. At home she is a lot more relaxed. She loves her little cousins who I childmind and is obsessed with animals (constantly asking us to get a dog). She can be a bit of worrier and hates any changes to her routine.

Last weekend she had a meltdown when my husband had to work last minute and was not home. I was searching on the internet for help with anxious girls and I came across an article on autism and it was like a light bulb moment as everything they talked about seemed to describe my daughter.

Do you think it could be autism? And how do I get an assessment and help for her?


While it is impossible to make any judgment from a short email, anxiety about going to school and struggles with socialising are common features of autism. While historically autism was thought to mainly affect boys, now there is a growing awareness that girls are equally affected, though it can be more hidden and more subtle. If you are concerned, you should seek further assessment and support. To do this you can go to your GP and ask for a referral to your local disability team or you can apply for an assessment of need via the HSE. Unfortunately, both routes can have very long waiting lists.

Alternatively, you can contact a private service that specialises in childhood autism assessment. Make sure to check the credentials of the service and that they are staffed by accredited professionals familiar with autism in girls. I would suggest you talk through your choices with one of the autism support help lines such as

There is a lot you can do to help your daughter while you are waiting for assessment. Understanding that her anxiety and friendship struggles might be due to her being autistic or having additional needs and adopting a compassionate stance towards her will make a big difference.

Understanding friendships

Autistic children can have different interests and communicate differently to neurotypical children. This can make them stand out, and unfortunately they can be rejected by other children for this. At the age of 11 friendship groups start to get formed in classrooms, with clear boundaries about “who is in and who is out”. The pressure is on conforming to fit in. Being different is less tolerated. Understanding these social codes and rules can be particularly hard for autistic children, which can lead to them being on the outside. Sometimes they learn to socially mask their personality in an effort to join in certain social groups but this can lead to stress and unhappiness.

Supporting your daughter’s friendships

Your daughter can make good friends but she might need a little support. For autistic girls the hardest social group to get on with is usually girls the same age, especially the “popular” girls, with whom they may have little in common. Usually autistic girls form better friendships with children who are different, like them, or with children who share their passions and interests. Often they get on with older or younger children and those they might have another connection with (such as a cousin). In addition, one-to-one social activities and friendships can work better for autistic children rather than “group socialising”, where the social rules are hard to grasp.

In helping your daughter, I would continue to try to find social outlets that match her passions and interests. She has a love for animals. Is there any way you can build upon this? Perhaps she could volunteer at a city farm, or dog kennels, or learn horse-riding or to care for horses. She also loves her little cousins. Perhaps she could be a great play leader or babysitter in the future. If she is not interested in sports, some of the organised social groups, such as scouts or girl guides, could work better for her. These usually involve different age groups, expose the children to a range of activities and provide responsible roles such as patrol leaders. The socialising in these groups can be more structured and supported, and thus provide a better opportunity for your daughter to be more successful in making friends.

Encourage her to identify what she loves to do and who she wants to hang out with. The long-term goal is to help her find her own tribe

To help her cope in school, try to identify with her other girls or boys who are different like her and who might be in need of friendship (often these are other quiet children in the class). The teacher might be able to help with this and facilitate her pairing with other children she might get on better with. You can support these friendships by facilitating one-to-one outings and reaching out to their other child’s parents. At 11 she is still young enough that you can provide some of this scaffolding and support. Also, you can help her manage the rejection by the groups of girls by helping her think differently about this.

Explain that they are not her type of friends and that these social groups are hard to break into. Encourage her to identify what she loves to do and who she wants to hang out with. The long-term goal is to help her find her own tribe.