A volunteer-run service that aims to improve social networks for girls with Autism is taking a step back from its first event in Perth to ensure the service can be available for Western Australian families in the long term.
On April 2, the Yellow Ladybugs hosted its first Perth party for girls with Autism aged between five and 12.
Yellow Ladybugs Founder Katie Koullas said the party was successful but the organisation would not host more events in Perth until long-term funding was obtained.
“This year we’ve put a pause on all chapter groups whilst we work behind the scenes to try and get the model perfect so that we can roll it out with systems in place,” Ms Koalas said.
“We want to make sure it’s sustainable but we don’t want to rush into it, to be running something properly so it’s a long-term thing.”
Ms Koullas said events in Melbourne had been selling out since they began in 2014, and had gained online support nationwide.
She said that Western Australia’s massive area made it difficult to find a location that all parents could attend with their daughters.
“What we found with Perth was that the families were so scattered across the state that we couldn’t find a central place where the majority of guests wanted to attend,” she said.
“Travelling is a big issue for our community because of the anxiety of travelling long distances so it wasn’t as heavily populated as Melbourne’s events.
“We haven’t been able to get it off the ground running because we haven’t been able to understand the local needs.”
Ms Koullas established Yellow Ladybugs after her daughter who was diagnosed with Asperger’s was the only child in her school class not to receive an invitation to one child’s birthday party.
“She was the only child in the class not to get one and it made me feel really sad for her and frustrated that she missed out,” she said.
“I was wondering if any other girls felt the same so I decided to create a party for girls on the [Autism] spectrum and we had a really overwhelming response.”
Ms Koullas said it was important to create opportunities for girls to meet each other and share their experiences.
“It meant so much for the girls to find their tribe and for them to share their journey,” she said.
She said she would like Yellow Ladybugs to be running in Perth by next year once a steady base of volunteers can be established in WA.
Abbigail Fleming, 14, of Morley attended the first Yellow Ladybug party and said the day was lots of fun and a new opportunity to make friends outside of school.
“Friends are important because I like to talk to them about the weekend and about teachers and stuff,” Abbigail said.
She said she loved spending time at the party with other girls who had similar interests, and hoped to have more opportunities as she entered her teen years.
“I like to play gymnastics and I like to play on the computer, and Uno: I’m really good,” Abbigail said.
“I’d love to go shopping with my friends.”
Abbigail’s mother, Chantelle Gardner, said the party was a fun day out.
“It was really nice just to see her play with other girls because that’s all she wants,” Ms Gardner said.
“I’ve been following the Yellow Ladybugs for quite a while over east in the hopes that one day they would come here because there is nothing for girls on the Autism spectrum.
“We’ve tried all sorts of sporting things.”
Ms Gardner just wants a chance for Abbigail to have fun and feel accepted.
“It can change lives, it can change her whole outlook and lessen anxiety,” she said.
“It can put a smile back on her face and that’s all a mother wants in this world is a smile and seeing her in that one meeting playing with other autistic females was music to my ears.
“I need her to see that there are really cool girls that are autistic and have a great time in life and that it’s okay.”
The opportunity to interact with parents sharing a similar experience was one of the key reasons Ms Gardner attended the party with Abbigail.
“It’s nice to be in a situation where I know no kids are going to judge her and no parents are going to judge me,” she said.
“As she gets older it would be nice to know that there’s a group of people that she can call and feel safe with and feel understood.”
In 2011, one in 100 children, and 230,000 Australians overall had been diagnosed with Autism, according to Autism Spectrum Australia. Boys were four times more likely to be diagnosed with Autism than girls.
However, Professor Andrew Whitehouse of the University of Western Australia and Telethon Kids Institute said recent studies indicated the gap had narrowed.
“In the last five years there’s been a lot of evidence coming out now that actually that gender ratio is far more even with a three-to-one boys to girls ratio, or even two-to-one boys to girls,” he said.
Professor Whitehouse said girls were more likely be older at the age of diagnosis because they presented their symptoms in childhood differently to boys.
“Girls seem to internalise, which means to keep everything in but may have some odd behaviours that are more subtle and often in private,” he said.
“So that really is the reason why the area of females and Autism has gone under the radar.
“Certainly, the last five years we’ve seen this explosion of research and clinical activity to say that the number of girls with Autism are far greater than we once thought and deserve far more attention.”
Events such as those run by the Yellow Ladybugs complement therapy sessions and school, giving girls a chance to build relationships with other girls facing struggles associated with Autism.
“If they don’t have social skills to keep up at school then all sorts of things can happen,” Professor Whitehouse said.
“They can be ostracised, bullied, have mental health problems and that’s really just the start of it.”
He said social meet-ups were a great opportunity for girls diagnosed with Autism, as well as their parents.
“Receiving a diagnosis of Autism is so disempowering,” he said.
“These kinds of social skills groups give parents the ability to connect with each other but also connect with their child and they start to realise: ‘Hang on, there are other people like me’.
“I speak to the parents of girls with Autism and the girls themselves, and they talk about these sort of void years where they were just bouncing around from health professional to health professional where they didn’t know what was going on but there was something different about them and they were struggling in all sorts of aspects.”