'The tip of an iceberg of inappropriate incarceration'

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General view of the Winterbourne View residential hospital i

It is now more than 10 years since the exposure of abuse and neglect at Winterbourne View home - Credit: PA

Two reports over the Christmas period have brought home the plight of adults with autism and learning disabilities in what are supposed to be specialist hospital units.

Tony Hickmott, 44, has been held in solitary confinement since he was "sectioned" under the Mental Health Act 20 years ago and detained in a hospital far away from his family home in Brighton. A 24-year-old man, known only as Patient A, was also "sectioned" four years ago after an episode of challenging behaviour when he became anxious and agitated and attacked his grandmother. Both these young men have been isolated from society and treated with antipsychotic and other medications, which their families believe has made their behaviour worse.

These reports are disturbing for two reasons. The first is that they arise from experiences that are all too familiar to me as the mother of a young man with autism and learning disabilities. Though our son has manifested challenging behaviour in the past, we have been fortunate that this has been well managed by his carers – and occasionally by the police – so that we have avoided compulsory admissions and sedative drugs. But the threat of these "assessment and treatment units" and their regime of "segregation, medication and monitoring" hangs over all families like ours.

Mary Langan. Picture: Luke Dixon

Mary Langan is the mother of a young man with autism and learning disabilities - Credit: Luke Patrick Dixon Photography

The second is that these cases are merely the tip of an iceberg of inappropriate incarceration. Figures released in December confirm that more than 100 patients have been detained in such circumstances, like Tony Hickmott, for more than 20 years. Though it is now more than 10 years since the exposure of abuse and neglect at Winterbourne View near Bristol prompted official commitments to close all such institutions, there are still more than 2,000 adults with autism and learning disabilities waiting for release to appropriate community facilities.

Both Tony Hickmott and Patient A are confined in units run by private companies which are funded by local authorities and local health services. It is up to these public agencies to provide suitable accommodation and care for these vulnerable individuals. As one parent put it, they "deserve a life, not a life sentence".

Mary Langan is chair of Severe and Complex Needs Families Group.