The long-term detainment of autistic people and individuals with learning disabilities must be banned, a committee of MPs has said.

Former health secretary Jeremy Hunt, who chairs the Commons Health and Social Care Committee, said it is a “national shame” that “far too many” people are still being detained.

In a new report, the committee said individuals can be subjected to “intolerable treatment” at inpatient facilities, including “abusive restrictive practices”.

It added that autistic people and those with learning difficulties can be kept for “long periods of time in facilities that do not meet their needs” and kept long distances from family and friends, and it wants all new long-term admissions to institutions to be banned except for forensic cases.

The committee warned that the “fatal misunderstanding” that people are treated as if their conditions are illnesses rather than a fundamental part of their identity means they often then develop mental or physical illnesses which are then used to justify their detention.

It added that there is a “shocking” six-year average length of stay in assessment and treatment units.

The Committee also wants to see assessment and treatment Units closed within two years, and the “immediate action on the use of restrictive practices by staff”.

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It claims some descriptions of the use of physical restraint and long-term segregation in in-patient facilities are not “worthy of a 21st century healthcare system” and bespoke community care should be offered instead of individuals being detained in hospitals.

When Sharon Clarke’s autistic seventeen-year-old son was having difficulties with his mental health, she called a crisis line.

She thought Ryan would be out of hospital in “a matter of weeks”, but that was 15 years ago. Ryan, now aged 32, remains detained in a forensic psychiatry unit more commonly used to house criminals.

He is one of around 2,000 people with autism or learning disabilities who are being kept in long-term institutional care.

Ryan with his family
Image: Ryan with his family

Even though Ryan is not a criminal, his mother says the unit he lives in is “very much like a prison”. He has been in long-term segregation for five years which Sharon Clarke describes as “horrendous and shocking”.

She believes his condition has seriously worsened over the years as he has become institutionalised.

Because Ryan is being detained under the mental health act, his family cannot make decisions about his care. This, his mother says, “is something that needs to stop”.

Responding to the committee report, a Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “Our priority is to ensure autistic people and people with learning disabilities are supported to live well in their communities, receive safe and high-quality care, and are treated with dignity and respect.

“The number of inpatients in mental health hospitals with autism and learning disabilities has reduced by around 30% in recent years, and we’re building on this with additional funding to cut admissions further and support the discharge of these patients back into the community.”

For Ryan and Sharon there is light at the end of the tunnel. He is set to move into his own home with a bespoke package of support within the next few months.

But Sharon feels her son has been robbed of the last years of his teens and all of his twenties, and warns there are too many learning disabled and autistic people who are in the same situation.

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