World Autism Awareness Day 2024

Volunteer Hannah has written a blog to mark World Autism Awareness Day:

The term autism was first utilised in 1911 by Swiss Psychiatrist, Eugen Bleuler who described it as a symptom of schizophrenia, which wasn’t recognised as a separate concept until the 1940s. Parents with autistic children were heavily blamed and experienced stigmatisation whilst autistic children were often institutionalised. Methods including electric shocks and anti-psychotic drugs were used to ’cure’ their autism. This probably sounds almost dystopian compared to how times have changed and improved for those with autism!

Nowadays the term autism has very different and more positive connotations in comparison, whilst being more widely understood and known. I had little to no knowledge of autism before my brother was diagnosed early on in his life. As I grew up, I noticed differences between us such as hobbies, behaviours and experiences. I understood more about why he displayed different manners such as repeatedly spinning in one spot and then proceeding to walk in a straight line (which was and still is very impressive!). It has been an interesting learning curve for me, one I am grateful for because the more we understand behaviour, the easier it is to explain it and find potential solutions if needed. I think the main thing that people tend to forget is that everyone on the autism spectrum is different and displays different traits. You probably won’t find two autistic people that are the same.

Although we have advanced so far, girls with autism are still somewhat in the shadows. Girls are less likely to be diagnosed than boys, partly explained by girls masking their symptoms and they don’t fit the stereotypical depictions of autism symptoms. Consequently, girls may be left in the dark and may feel lost without understanding their behaviour which is why more research, knowledge and awareness is required.
Another group of individuals who may also struggle with autism are prisoners. For those in prison on the autism spectrum, I imagine it can be very difficult. I say that I imagine because I am neurotypical: it's important to recognise any biases; but this doesn't mean that I can't learn to apply what I already know about autism to a prison population. For example, I've stepped onto a busy wing before as part of a prison tour and it was very much sensory overload: lots of noise, many people about at once and different smells just to name a few. For many autistic individuals, they enjoy routine and in prison, routines may not always go to plan, especially if something else occurs that requires staff attention more. Prison food may also be an issue with different textures, smells and tastes for autistic individuals. Sharing cells may also heighten anxiety for some prisoners with autism given a lack of personal space. Additionally, attending education may also be daunting if they struggle with the work or feel embarrassed perhaps. These are just a few examples to help you potentially understand the experiences of a prisoner with autism. I am determined to work in prison education and interventions; hence neurodiversity is a significant catalyst for behaviour to consider.

Therefore, New Bridge is a fantastic way to help you navigate conversations and help better understand those with autism in prison. Especially given that one in three individuals in prison are neurodiverse (Coates, 2016). We also need to remember that some prisoners may have experienced difficult childhoods and were not diagnosed or were raised during a time that didn’t recognise autism...this is why it’s imperative to raise awareness and maintain an open mind, always.

If Hannah has inspired you to consider volunteering with New Bridge you can apply here:

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