There's a popular saying when it comes to autism spectrum disorder (ASD): "If you've met one person with autism, you've met one person with autism." The spectrum is incredibly vast and every child is different - no one displays all of the same signs in the exact same way. This means that it can be really tricky for teachers to identify them and then offer the right support for those pupils.

So how, as a teacher, can you spot the signs? Girls and boys adopt various coping methods for surviving the social chaos of primary and secondary school. But one of the key indicators for school staff to look out for is a trait called "social masking", which is very common among girls.

Social masking is when a child copies the behaviours of those around them to fit in. It can be hard to spot because the copied behaviour may come across as merely conventional.

However, there are signs to look out for: a girl with ASD might observe behaviour and display an exact copy of it. For example, if a child in their class makes a joke and everybody laughs, the child with ASD may repeat this joke on more than one occasion to trigger the same response from her peers. This can, of course, be irritating for the other children, which may confuse and upset the girl because she may not understand the social issues that repeating somebody else's joke can create.

Social masking is not always verbal. To try to fit in, the girl with ASD may also closely observe trends in toys, clothing, and hairstyles that are popular, and then copy them. Although this could be mistaken as the conventional nature of childhood trends in the playground, it is the literal nature of the copying that is often seen when a girl with ASD uses social masking in a visual way. For example, if a girl that she wants to be friends with says all she ever wants to wear is pink, then the girl with ASD may come in the next day wearing all pink clothing. I experienced this myself in primary school.

When I was six years old and every girl in my class used to bring in a specific brand of doll, the other girls were only interested in conversations to do with these dolls. So, to fit in, I went home and researched everything that I felt I needed to know to engage in conversation about the dolls, such as their storylines, history and colour scheme. I then bought one with my pocket money and brought it into school. The key difference in my behaviour compared with the other children was that I was using the dolls as a tool for social camouflage rather than valuing them as a genuine interest.

Sequence of copying

Another sign of social masking is the visible display of observation. If you look closely, you will be able to see if a child is social masking by the sequential nature of the process they go through. First, they will observe; then, when they feel that they can begin to copy, they will most likely test whether the approach they have chosen will work before using it on a bigger scale. This could be by using the copied behaviour in front of another child they are familiar with or even a small group of children that they are familiar with. If the behaviour does not work, then they will begin to observe and plan again until they feel they have worked out the best way to socially mask by using the behaviour they have observed.

Not all girls on the autism spectrum have this trait. Many autistic children try to fit in through a less-subtle approach, which is best described as "throwing themselves in at the deep end". They do not hold back on how they approach other children and can often be labelled as "naughty" due to their excitement over social interaction.

Others may do the complete opposite by purely focusing on themselves and therefore isolating themselves from their peers. This can sometimes lead to close friendships with other children that also choose to do the same thing. When I was in preschool, I always played with the train set by myself, but there was always a child next to me with the same interest and lack of interest in social interaction. Teachers should be cautious of this behaviour because it can lead to issues later in their years at school, as they may decide that they want to try to make friends, but do not know how. If this does happen, then listed methods of making friends are often very helpful. This can be communicated through written lists, picture schedules/lists, books etc.

So what do you do after you have spotted this behaviour? The child's wellbeing and progression in class may be at risk because social masking can be incredibly exhausting. You always need to consider the simplest way of supporting the child - this usually is to have a discussion with them or their parents, depending on their age and confidence. By telling them what you've noticed, you're opening a discussion and it becomes easier to plan solutions. There is no one better to discuss this with than the child themselves or those who most likely know them best.

After discussing how to best support the child with their social understanding, if you or the family still want to seek additional advice, then there are fantastic charities such as the National Autistic Society that can advise or offer what may be needed.