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The article “Promoting Peer Acceptance of Females with Higher-Functioning Autism in a

Mainstream Education Setting” described the process by which researchers developed,

implemented, and studied an anti-stigma program in an Australian school setting. Their goal was

to develop an effective anti-stigma program to improve the knowledge, behavioral intentions,

and attitudes of typical students toward female students with high-functioning autism. The goal

was met when they saw some improvement of typical students’ attitudes toward female students

with high-functioning autism.

The researchers sought to study females with high-functioning autism (HFA) in particular

because they tend to present their symptoms and behaviors differently than males. In the past,

there was a mistaken belief that high-functioning autistic students (particularly females) with

high intelligence would be better able to cope with social behaviors and pressures, but this was

often not true without targeted intervention or support to develop social skills and fluency.

Female students affected by HFA are often diagnosed later than boys, for two hypothetical

reasons. The article states that “The first hypothesis suggests that current diagnostic criteria and

assessment tools for HFA are biased towards the male presentation of HFA, which may differ

from the female presentation of HFA.” (Ranson, 2279) The second hypothesis posits that girls

develop better coping strategies and have more success mimicking their peers. The toll this takes

on female HFA students can present in anxiety, mood disorders, and eating disorders. During

adolescence, these same students are more likely to be bullied by their fellow students.

Despite the high frequency of female HFA students being looked after by exceptionally

patient peers, or “guardian angels” (Ranson, 2780), who tend to defend them, the expectations

that society places on them tend to expand as they age. HFA males often display more dramatic

behaviors that give away their disorder. Since girls work so hard to cover these behaviors, they


benefit from less forgiveness when the behaviors do present themselves. Their peers don’t

understand when these emerge, and are less forgiving. Since there will always be some element

of social deficit for female students with HFA, the researches sought to lessen the bullying

behaviors that come from their peers by addressing their knowledge of HFA behaviors, reducing

the stigma.

The three informative means the researchers used to address the knowledge bases of the

peers without HFA were:

• providing information on the commonalities between HFA students and their peers

• explaining the lack of control HFA students often do not have over their behavior

• interactions with HFA students and guidance on how to handle situations

They provided this over the course of 8 sessions for 7th, 8th, and 9th grade students. They also

supplemented the direct interactions with web-based education. They expected to see

improvements in the behavior, attitudes, and knowledge of high-functioning autism in the group

that received the direct education and supplemental web based education. They also hoped to see

other students who did not participate benefit from the changed attitudes and knowledge of their

peers who had participated in the program. They hoped to see effects last until the end of the

school term, which was approximately three months from the date of the experiment.

The students who agreed to participate were put into classes during time normally spent

on religious instruction. The researchers believed that the knowledge fit into the context of

character education they were already receiving during that timeframe, and this would be less

likely to disrupt curriculum based learning in their other content areas. Students (participants and

non-participants) completed the pre-assessment during quarter hour sessions. This was followed


by eight sessions run by the researchers that lasted nearly an hour, respectively. The grades were

separated for all of the sessions, except the one where they met with a female student with high-

functioning autism. The web based component was utilized after each educational session. At the

end, the students (participants and non-participants) completed a post-test to assess any progress


The anti-stigma program saw some success in the tolerance and acceptance toward

females with HFA that lasted a brief period of time, but not into the next school term. Behavioral

intentions of peers toward female students with HFA remained improved into the next school

term. Knowledge of HFA and females with HFA was demonstrably improved. Unfortunately,

the web-based supplemental learning did not result in higher gains in tolerance or more sustained

results, as the researchers had hoped. They had also hoped to see some of the students who were

not able to participate pick up on the new attitudes of the students who had participated, but they

didn’t see very much of that in a measurable way. They did experience an attitude improvement

overall from the participants, not just toward HFA students. They attributed this to “respondent

sensitization” (Ranson, 2790), where the act of evaluating one’s self for the questionnaire makes

one more self-aware of behaviors.

The researchers pointed toward the continuing discoveries that female HFA students are

under-diagnosed, and stress the importance of continuing research in this area, to help reduce the

stigma these young ladies face in mainstream education settings every day. As the parent of a

young lady with high-functioning autism (what was once called Asperger’s) who was in a

mainstream education setting that was underprepared to accommodate her and meet her needs, I

agree completely with the researchers’ recommendations. Much more funding and research is

needed to investigate how females with HFA present, and anything educators can do to facilitate


better social interaction with their peers makes the educational experience more rewarding for




Ranson, N. J., & Byrne, M. K. (2014). Promoting peer acceptance of females with higher-

functioning autism in a mainstream education setting: A replication and extension of the

effects of an autism anti-stigma program. Journal of Autism and Developmental

Disorders, 44(11), 2778-96. doi: