Supporting autistic people experiencing homelessness

Tue, 02/04/2019

Autistic people are at significantly higher risk of being homeless, new research suggests.

People experiencing homelessness were found to be over 10 times more likely to show strong signs of autism than usual.

At present there is very little autism-specific support for people experiencing homelessness available across the country, and this is one of the first pieces of research of its kind.
This will offer practical advice and solutions for those who work with people experiencing homelessness on a day-to-day basis.

However, charities, people with lived experience and Westminster City Council are now joining forces to launch a new toolkit across Westminster and England that will improve support.

This toolkit aims to familiarise client-facing services with autism and give them ideas and strategies to help people experiencing homelessness who are or could be autistic.

Cllr Andrew Smith, Westminster City Council cabinet member for housing services, said: “In Westminster we do everything we can to support people who are homeless, or are at risk of becoming homeless.

“To do this we need to understand people as individuals, and the nuances of their situation.

“The new toolkit will help our teams understand autism better, and make a positive difference to people’s lives.”

Westminster City Council spends £6.5m per year supporting rough sleepers, and the new Chat App Tap campaign gives people the chance to donate money at terminals in the borough.

Anna Midgley, Westminster Homeless Health Co-Ordinator at St Mungo’s, said:

“Homelessness and rough sleeping are traumatic and dangerous for everyone. However, autistic people can face the additional challenge of trying to navigate services that aren’t always able to respond to their needs. We wanted to be involved in developing this toolkit as a vital resource for anyone working in homelessness services, to extend their knowledge and skills so they can provide more informed support, which could make the difference between someone staying in accommodation and fulfilling their hopes and ambitions or returning to the dangers of life on the streets.”

The challenges autistic people face in communicating and interacting with others can lead to relationship breakdown and social isolation. This is likely to reduce support networks and create difficulties in accessing help. Family breakdown may be a particular issue for some autistic people.

While more research needs to be done, it seems likely that autistic people may also be particularly vulnerable when they are homeless. Social isolation, which raises risks to health and wellbeing, may also reduce the chances of engaging with homelessness services. Further, because autistic people have difficulty in understanding and predicting the behaviour of others, they may be more at risk of violence and abuse.

The project was led by Dr Alasdair Churchard, a clinical psychologist who has conducted research in this area. Dr Churchard convened a multi-disciplinary steering group to contribute to the toolkit.

Dr Churchard said:“Autistic people appear to be at greater risk of homelessness. However I was still shocked that such a high proportion of the people experiencing homelessness in my research showed strong signs of autism.

 “Given this, I wanted to take action to help autistic people experiencing homelessness receive better support, and the Autism and Homelessness toolkit is an important step towards this. It is the result of expertise from a wide range of individuals, organisations and charities who gave up their time for free. I would encourage workers and organisations in the homelessness field to use and share the toolkit in their practice.

 “More research is needed in this area to understand the link between autism and homelessness, how to support autistic people who are experiencing homelessness, and how to prevent autistic people from falling into homelessness in the first place.”

This group included the National Autistic Society, St Mungo’s, Homeless Link, Resources for Autism, Westminster City Council and people with lived experience. All the organisations involved gave their time, expertise and materials free of charge.

Dr Churchard was also the lead author of the first peer-reviewed study into autism and homelessness, which was published in 2018 in the respected journal, Autism. The study found that 12% of a group of people experiencing homelessness showed strong signs of autism. Given that only 1.1% of people are thought to be autistic, this indicates that people experiencing homelessness are more than ten times more likely to show signs of autism than the general public.  This builds on other studies that have also suggested a link between autism and homelessness.

Autism is a lifelong disability which affects how people communicate and interact with the world. Challenges in communicating with others, a lack of community understanding and support, and employment disadvantage and discrimination are likely to be key reasons why autistic adults may be more at risk of homelessness.

Liza Dresner, Director of the charity Resources for Autism, said: “Thinking autism helps us to understand the route to homelessness of a very vulnerable group of people.

“Prevention has to be our main aim and much more needs to be done to stop autistic people from becoming homeless in the first place. However, offering support in a way that meets the communication and sensory needs of people on the autism spectrum and taking time to understand behaviour in a positive rather than negative way can and has made a huge difference to helping rough sleepers feel safe to come indoors. This tool kit will go a long way to helping with this.

“For this to be a lasting, long term strategy it is essential that accommodation and support services for people experiencing homelessness understand autism and what they can do differently to support autistic people experiencing homelessness.”

Tim Nicholls, Head of Policy at the National Autistic Society, said: "Research suggests that an alarming proportion of people who are homeless could be autistic - and that there is a lack of understanding about the specific challenges they face and not enough appropriate support.

"It's well known that many autistic children and adults struggle to get the support they need and end up missing out on an education, struggling to find work and becoming socially isolated. And we've heard troubling anecdotal reports of adults falling into homelessness. But it's only recently that the scale of the problem is starting to become clear.

"We were really pleased to be able to contribute to this important toolkit - and believe it will help staff working in the homelessness and supported housing sectors to support people who are homeless and could also be autistic. This is a very welcome step. But we urgently need more research to investigate the link between autism and homelessness and how to prevent those at risk from becoming homeless.

"Autistic people who are homeless have gone unrecognised and unsupported for far too long."


Background to toolkit

Autism is a lifelong disability that affects how people perceive the world and interact with others.

Research suggests that it is likely that autistic people are not only more at risk of becoming homeless, but also more vulnerable once they are on the streets; they may also find it more difficult to move into new accommodation.

Staff working in the homelessness and supported housing sectors can use this toolkit by incorporating appropriate elements into their work processes and services, as required.  Managers and other staff may also wish to use the toolkit as a basis for presentations or workshops on autism and homelessness.

What is autism?

Autism is a lifelong disability which affects how people communicate and interact with the world.

There are approximately 700,000 autistic adults and children in the UK.

All autistic people have difficulties with communication and social interaction.

Autism is a spectrum condition. This means autistic people have their own strengths and varying and complex needs, from 24-hour care to simply needing clearer communication and a little longer to do things at work and school.

Although everyone is different, people on the autism spectrum may:

be under or oversensitive to sounds, touch, tastes, smells, light or colours, which can make everyday life extremely difficult

be unable to or find it harder to speak, face delays processing information or find it hard to hold conversations

experience intense anxiety around unexpected change and social situations

become so overwhelmed that they experience debilitating physical and emotional ‘meltdowns’ or ‘shutdowns’.

Without the right support or understanding, autistic people can miss out on an education, struggle to find work and become extremely isolated.

Last updated: 2 April 2019