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In the U.K., Autistic People Are Locked Away in Modern-Day Asylums

Autistic people are still locked away in asylums in the U.K.; all that has changed is the name. Now they are called Assessment and Treatment Units (ATUs). As a 19-year-old autistic person, I am campaigning for change. These units are inappropriate and unsuitable for autistic people and learning disabled people. In these units, autistic people and learning disabled people are overmedicated, physically restrained, put in isolation and sometimes verbally abused. For example, in one month, there were 2,605 uses of restrictive interventions (such as physical restraint) – 875 of which were against children. Often autistic people and learning disabled people are kept hundreds of miles away from home. Their families are unable to see them and are helpless in trying to get them out.

The lack of resources and specialist support in the community for autistic people, that takes into consideration autistic needs, means that autistic people and learning disabled people are sent to these ATUs. It is then almost impossible to get them out of these units. The average stay in an ATU is five years and 16% have been in these units for over 10 years. Staff have very little or sometimes no training at all on autism and learning disabilities. This is human rights abuse.

These units are often loud with the sound of alarms, slamming doors and shouting. They are essentially an autistic person’s nightmare. There is a constant turnover of staff. Imagine having a stranger walking in and out of your bedroom for 10 years of your life or hearing screams from the room next door, slamming doors, shouting, jingles of keys and ringing alarms. This is supposed to be an environment of care, except it feels like the opposite.

Some have described the current detainment of autistic and learning disabled people as a “trade in people.” Currently, private companies are paid by the NHS to detain autistic and learning disabled people. They get money for each person that they “treat”/detain. As a result, some people argue that the providers of the assessment and treatment units do not want their patients to leave. When autistic and learning disabled people leave these units, private providers lose money. There is little incentive for private providers to actually support autistic people to help them to leave these units and live at home.

The unnecessary detainment of autistic and learning disabled people is a symptom of a wider problem. A system that does not see autistic people’s lives as valuable but sees us as a “burden on society” or as “disordered.” Instead, we must end the pathologizing of autistic behavior and understand that autistic people communicate in a way that is different but equally valid, that autistic people deserve to engage with their interests or hobbies even if it is different from how neurotypicals do so, and that autistic people must co-produce support that is supposed to help us.

The government keeps making promises that it does not keep: In 2011, the government promised that by 1 June 2014, the 3,250 children and adults who were then in inpatient units, would be supported to move back to their local communities. This did not happen. In 2015, the government promised that by the end of May 2019, they would close 35-50% of inpatient beds. This did not happen. Over 2,000 autistic and learning disabled children and adults are still detained in inpatient units. This needs to end.

Getty image by Vladimir Zapletin.