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  1. (Not written by me) How women with autism found shelter amid the trees By Sandra Dick There was a gentle breeze, nothing too blustery that it would take the edge of the sun’s warmth and just enough to remind Jasmine Ghibli of what she had been missing. The teenager had hidden herself away for so long that she’d forgotten what it felt like to stand outside and feel the wind, to catch a bus for a shopping trip in town, or just walk her dog. Outside, she convinced herself after years of bullying, meant risk and threat. Inside, where no-one could poke fun at her for being autistic, call her names or crush her confidence, was where she felt comfortable. But finally, with a forest campfire blazing, the wind blowing and the sun’s rays beating down, the 18-year-old was finally able to let her anxiety go. Today Jasmine has rediscovered the joy of being outdoors after taking part in a unique programme which encourages autistic woman like her to reconnect with the natural world. Organised by SWAN: Scottish Women’s Autism Network and Scottish Forestry, the outdoor workshops cover a wide variety of activities including team building, nature identification and awareness, leadership skills, arts and crafts, and practical sessions such as learning how to build a fire and shelter. By the end, it’s hoped participants have the skills to go on to mentor, encourage and support other women with autism. While around 700,000 people in the UK are on the autistic spectrum, autism in girls and women often goes undiagnosed: five times as many males as females are diagnosed with autism. One reason is thought to be their ability to successfully hide common traits of autism, others argue the diagnostic tools used to establish autism is geared towards assessing the behaviour of boys and men. The delay or lack of diagnosis means many women and girls may be struggling to cope with autism and without vital support both from professionals and other autistic women. Dr Catriona Stewart, founder and chair of SWAN, says: “Women are often misdiagnosed or misunderstood partly because they may develop coping strategies that can mask the difficulties they face in day to day life, but it is becoming increasingly understood that more women may be on the autism spectrum than previously thought. “The programme provides an opportunity for autistic women to share with each other their life experiences, learning and insight and to build skills for inclusion and self-development.” For Jasmine, diagnosed at primary school and bullied for it at high school, autism had seemed to set her up for a future in which she rarely ventured outdoors for fear of abuse from strangers. Now, having conquered her concerns as a result of the outdoor programme, she is planning to go to university in September and has rediscovered the joy of being outdoors. “I had forgotten what it was like to be outside,” she says. “I couldn’t get over how nice the sun felt and how good it was to feel the wind on my face. I loved watching the campfire and just being outside.” Jasmine, from Helensburgh [in Dumbartonshire], had been gripped by anxiety at the thought of leaving home after experience a difficult time at high school. “I was bullied quite badly, had very bad sensory issues and a complete lack of compassion from my teachers. “I couldn’t leave the town I live in without a family member or worker. The whole idea of it was too much for both my mum and I.” Her involvement with SWAN’s mentoring programme and the outdoor workshops helped her realise there were other women with autism who also struggled with “basic and mundane” activities, she says. “We learned about nature and how to be more aware of what’s around us in the outdoors. We also developed practical skills such as putting up a shelter, building a fire, outdoor cooking, and understanding conservation activities. I can honestly say it’s really changed my life. I feel much more confident and my self-esteem has increased. I am really excited about things again.” Liz Holland from Glasgow, a former Scottish Forestry Volunteer Community Champion, says she has also benefited from the outdoor sessions. “It’s excellent to spend time with other autistic women who experience the world as I do, and with whom I can easily communicate and spend time with without unpleasant social expectations being foisted on me,” she says. “The woodlands provide a relaxed, sensory friendly environment, which makes it easier for the mentors and mentees to connect and enjoy themselves and focus on particular activities.” Romena Huq, engagement officer at Scottish Forestry, says: “The outdoors provides a calming environment and plenty of space for people to enjoy but not feel overwhelmed in a group situation.” Source: The Herald (Glasgow)
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