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MPs call for end to autistic people stuck in mental health institutions



Autistic people and people with learning disabilities face ‘intolerable treatment’ and are ‘too often subject to treatment that is an affront to a civilised society’ in long-term institutions, MPs have warned.

They called for a ban on most admissions of these groups to long-term institutions, in a Health and Social Care Committee report published yesterday.         

The call comes after recent NHS figures show in May 2021, 2,055 autistic people and people with learning disabilities are in inpatient mental health settings in England.   

A ‘lack of adequate community provision’ and funding is largely behind the ‘scandal’, the report found.

Because of this people with autism and learning difficulties ‘avoidably admitted’ to settings where ‘they do not receive the support the require and there are no specialists in their condition’ and face ‘intolerable treatment’.

This treatment includes ‘being subject to abusive restrictive practices; being detained for long periods of time in facilities that do not meet their needs; and being kept long distances away from their family and friends’, the committee members highlighted.

MPs also demanded that assessment and treatment units (ATUs), which are designed to be for short-term placements for people with learning disabilities, are closed and replaced with person-centred services. This was after finding a ‘shocking’ six-year average length of stay in ATUs.

The committee heard that of the 4,355 restrictive interventions reported in March 2020, physical restraint the most common. Anti-psychotic medication, long-term segregation and seclusion with individuals kept in isolation for long durations often in ‘cell-like conditions’, were also used.

Other recommendations from the report included:

  • The Government should conduct an assessment of costs of moving care and support to the community for individuals detained in inpatient units and provide investment to match
  • The use of restrictive practices on autistic people and people with learning disabilities in inpatient facilities to be published twice a year
  • Independent reviews of deaths of all autistic people and people with learning disabilities in inpatient and community settings should be mandatory

Head of policy at charity Mencap Dan Scorer told MPs: ‘We need early intervention and support for people and their families so that we do not get anywhere near crisis situations. It is because of a lack of investment in specialist support in the community that many people reach that stage.’

The report concluded: ‘Autistic people and people with learning disabilities have the right to live independent, free and fulfilled lives in the community and it is an unacceptable violation of their human rights to deny them the chance to do so.’

The National Autistic Society said: ‘The scandal will continue without reforms to mental health law to stop people from being sectioned just because they’re autistic. And the Government and NHS need to properly invest in better social care and mental health services in the community.’

The report comes ten years after abuse was uncovered at Winterbourne View Hospital, an inpatient unit for people with learning disabilities, in 2011.

NHS England published a plan in 2015 to close 35-50% of inpatient beds for autistic people with or without a learning disability by May 2019 – but NHS Digital data shows inpatient numbers only fell by 29% from 2,890 in March 2015 to 2,055 in December 2020.

The Long Term Plan, published in 2019, revised the timeframe of the target for reducing inpatient provision to 35%-50% level to 2023-24.

Last month, the RCN urged the Government to ‘urgently re-double its efforts’ to recruit learning disability nurses because a shortage of staff could be putting lives at risk.