VAMHN'S ECR BURSARY WINNER Nicole Renehan DISCUSSES HER attendance at the Autism and Mental Health Conference
Have a read below to see what our ECR bursary winner Nicole Renehan did with her award money. To find out how you can apply to our ECR Bursary Scheme click here.
I was delighted to be awarded the Early Career Researcher grant from VAMHN to attend the Autism and Mental Health Conference on 11th March 2021, hosted by the National Autistic Society. The purpose of the conference was to explore the specific adversities and needs of autistic people in relation to their mental health and how services have responded to them before, during, and thinking beyond the pandemic. There were four sessions including several speakers and presentations covering the broad topics of: 1) Understanding and meeting the needs of autistic people; 2) The impact of covid 3) Evidence based approaches; and a Key Note speech by Dr Peter Vermeulen on Coping with uncertainty – Strategies for well-being. All of the presentations and talks were fascinating and the pre-conference easy read booklet with engaging power point slides was really impressive.
My own interest in attending this conference stems for my research with domestic abuse perpetrators which explored how, why, and for whom UK accredited criminal justice, domestic violence perpetrator programmes work. This was an in-depth cohort study which meant that I was able to ask about the lived experiences of some of the men who attended the programme and follow them through their journeys of change. One of the men I interviewed was awaiting an assessment for autism. ‘Trevor’ had faced many adversities in his life such as domestic abuse, parental violence (by his stepfather) and mainstream school exclusion. He said that he had always felt like an ‘outsider’ and struggled to ‘associate’ with people, which had impacted on his mental health. Trevor also experienced overwhelming feelings within intimate relationships. My research documented many barriers to change. But it was identified that autistic men (certainly evidenced in Trevor’s accounts) will face additional barriers than neurotypical men in regard to programme engagement, understanding and support needs.
I attended the Autism and Mental Health conference as I wanted to further my understanding about the difficulties autistic people face in regard to their mental health. Ultimately, I wanted to extend my knowledge and research about how multiple adversities hinder autistic men’s capacity to change in the context of perpetrators programmes and how these can be developed and/or adjusted to be more responsive to neurodiversity.
There were many things that I learned. I learned that autistic people commonly experience anxiety more profoundly than non-autistic people; that feelings of (even slight) uncertainty can be compounded by absolute thinking; that anxiety can be driven by a sense of feeling ‘less than’ neuro-typical people; and that masking (to fit in with neurotypical people) can be exhausting and may result in increased anxiety and, ultimately, distress and panic. I learned that self-calming strategies could mitigate anxiety in stressful or unfamiliar situations but that such activities might be inaccessible, forbidden, and/or not socially tolerated. What this suggests, firstly, is the need for much wider understanding of neurodiversity in society. But, crucially, it suggests that much more can be done to reasonably adjust domestic violence perpetrator programmes so that they are more responsive to autistic men’s sensory, emotional, and relational needs and learning. There is no ‘one size fits all’ and so responses should be individualised. It might also involve simple messaging rather than complex programme material and concepts, and flexible programme structures for those who are unable to engage in group work environments. I would add that the needs of the whole family should be central to any intervention involving autistic people, particularly when families chose to stay together and/or child contact will be the motivation for programme engagement.