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Our Prison Mental Health Team celebrates Autism Acceptance Week

Posted by Devon Partnership Trust in Learning disability, News on 27th June, 2022

Earlier this year our Prison Mental Health Team celebrated Autism Acceptance Week across our three local prisons: HMP Channings Wood, HMP Dartmoor and HMP Exeter. This national event was held throughout the week of Monday 28 March – Sunday 3 April to raise awareness, increase acceptance and support people with autism.

The HMP Channings Wood Mental Health Team held a very successful event in the Chapel that was co-produced by our colleagues and patients. Our Mental Health Patient Forum (MHPF) Representatives and individuals with lived experience were heavily involved throughout the preparation and delivery of the event. The Mental Health Team would like to thank those individuals for their dedication and for sharing their personal experiences and skills.

This co-produced event created a safe space for those who wished to share their stories with others and talk about what autism means to them. Interactive activities were available and there were opportunities to engage in a group mindfulness experience and interactive games. Those who attended were provided with a sensory bag that helped engage with our five senses. Alison Whiting, newly appointed Autism Specialist, joined in on the day along with other representatives from across the prison: Education, Chaplaincy and Healthcare.

Individuals from both HMP Channings Wood & Dartmoor shared their stories of living with autism in the DPT Prison Summer Distraction booklet and a patient from HMP Channings Wood who attended the event, briefly shared his recent experiences engaging with Patient Engagement (Mental Health Team) in The Inside Time’s prison newspaper

Rob, a patient from HMP Channings Wood shares his story of living with autism in prison:

Autism in my eyes…

“When I was first diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder, my first thought was great, just another label that’s wrong with me; adding to a very complex list of my other diagnoses, especially as it is a lifelong disorder. Realising this affected my self-esteem and confidence even more, which made me feel even worse about who I was as a person, because there is no cure or pill that can fix autistic people.

“So what is autism? It is a lifelong developmental disorder. It is a spectrum disorder, which means all people with autism will share certain difficulties, however their condition will affect them in different ways. Autism affects how a person communicates, how they relate to others, the ability to socialise and how they make sense of the world. They usually have an intense focus on an interest or hobby and difficulties expressing their emotions, also decoding other people’s emotions. Some differences are not easy to spot and others can be more visible. ‘They’ say 1/100 people are autistic. Each year this increases, which demonstrates that we are not alone. We are not looking to be treated better than others, we are looking for people to adapt to us, and so we can achieve and be the best version of ourselves. At least one of our difficulties another autistic person will have, this is why in the community there are a number of autistic social groups.

“I have extreme anxieties in any social setting, being around people in any group setting is highly anxiety provoking. This is why I need down time, to recharge my social energy, as being around people does take a lot out of me. You might have heard me say at times “I have had enough of people today.” It’s not because I hate people, it is because I need to recharge my social energy. Being with someone I know in a group setting does let me feed off of their confidence, to give me a chance to succeed. I hate change of routine or structure, it can lead me to struggle. At times I am very sensitive to touch, I cut labels out of my clothes and as you can see me wearing ear defenders as I am sensitive to sound. I struggle with reading facial expressions, understanding tones of voice, joking, banter and sarcasm. I interrupt things literally and struggle with no literal language and metaphors. I usually miss the point of what is being communicated; if it is broken down in parts, it becomes easier for me. At times I have difficulty reading or recognising or understanding others feelings, while having “difficulty expressing my own feelings, which can lead to people thinking I am incentive. All of this makes it hard for me to navigate the social word. My intense focused hobby is animals; I have had snacks, tropical fish, dogs, rabbits, guinea pigs and hamsters. The animal I would love to own next is a llama, because they spit. This hobby is intense, because I would buy animals or items for animals rather than buying food for me. This has led me to being in debt in the past. I love animals, I have always preferred animals over people, as people hurt me and animals do not.

“I am very good at problem solving; spotting the obvious and thinking logically. I am amazingly good at really extreme Sudoku too. I am very good with colours, I can see and identify more colours in the rainbow.

“I especially hate the word disorder or referencing it to mental health, as it suggests that we need fixing or curing. I am among a number of autistic people, who see autism as a lifelong disability. Remember we are not a disease, we do not need to be cured. There are others like us, we are not alone, and this is how we were created in the world. ‘They’ say some of the best people in the world are created autistic. Thank you for listening”.

Kirsty Lane, Patient Engagement Co-ordinator, would like to thank both J and Rob for sharing their experiences. If you would like to know more about the patient engagement opportunities taking place across the local prisons you can contact Kirsty on klane1@nhs.net or Jean Simpson, Prison Mental Health Team Lead on jean.simpson@nhs.net

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