'There are still more than 2,000 adults in ‘modern day asylums'

Embargoed to 0001 Tuesday June 11. PICTURE POSED BY MODEL: Temporary cell blocks which have been bui

Some police over-react when a person with autism has a meltdown and resort to restraint and seclusion in a cell - Credit: PA

The phone call letting you know that your son with autism and learning disabilities has been detained by the police following a meltdown in some public place is one every parent dreads. What happens next can have important – and sometimes disastrous – long-term consequences.

If, as in our experience, the police respond sensitively and allow the agitation and aggression to settle without resorting to physical restraints, then the incident can be quickly resolved.

If, as in the experience of too many families, the police over-react and resort to restraint and seclusion in a cell, and then enforce admission to an inpatient unit under a ‘section’ of the Mental Health Act, then problems are set to continue, possibly indefinitely.

It is now 10 years since the scandal of abuse and neglect of adults with autism and learning disabilities at Winterbourne View near Bristol. Yet one deadline after another to close such units has been missed.

There are still more than 2,000 adults in what have been described by Dan Storer of Mencap as ‘modern day asylums’. The average duration of confinement is five-and-a-half years – often in locations far away from the family home.

Mary Langan wants more IT support and training in care settings.

Mary Langan welcomes the opening of the Chad Gordon Autism campus in Tottenham - Credit: Archant


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The new White Paper updating the Mental Health Act, which follows the independent review by Professor Sir Simon Wessely, offers some hope of progress in this bleak situation. Under the proposed new legislation, ‘neither autism nor learning disabilities are grounds for detention in and of themselves’ and protracted admission can only be justified by evidence of ‘therapeutic benefit’.

The Wessely review emphasises the need for long-term investment in alternatives to detention and repudiates the use of the Mental Health Act to compensate for the lack of community support. It recognises the importance of improving access to community based mental health support, including crisis care, to avoid the need for detention and admission.

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In this spirit we welcome the opening, following a long parental campaign, of the Chad Gordon Autism campus in Tottenham. Incorporating the Haringey Opportunities Project and #ActuallyHaringey, the campus offers a range of facilities for families and individuals across the autistic spectrum.

Mary Langan is chair of Severe and Complex Needs Families Group (SCALD)

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