Autism is not a mental health condition, but many autistic people develop separate mental health problems. Often this can stem from a lack of appropriate support, which means that autistic people can develop more significant needs.

Here, we have information for families on what to do if their autistic family member is at risk or has been admitted to or discharged from a mental health hospital. 

Meeting autistic people’s mental health needs

Some people’s needs get so high that services in the community can struggle to meet those needs, or those services might be lacking. For example, some people’s behaviour can be seen as ‘challenging’ or their mental health needs might require ‘assessment and treatment’. At the National Autistic Society, we campaign for better services for autistic people across the country, especially to try and prevent people from being admitted as an inpatient to mental health hospitals. In some cases, the way that an autistic person behaves can be mistaken for a sign of mental illness. This is wrong and the Mental Health Act Code of Practice is clear that this alone is not justify someone being ‘sectioned’. This can be an issue for people across the autism spectrum, regardless of whether they communicate using speech, or their IQ.

The Code of Practice also says that “compulsory treatment in a hospital setting is rarely likely to be helpful,” for an autistic person. We highlighted many of the issues that autistic people and their families face in our Transforming Care: our stories report. Our website has more information about autism and mental health.

It is vital that all health professionals understand autism and the needs of autistic people (including communication and sensory needs) across the whole spectrum. There is more information about autism, which you might find useful to share with professionals on our website. Services should meet these needs, provide personalised support and avoid a ‘one size fits all’ approach.

However, some autistic people find themselves at risk of admission into, or in mental health hospitals (or assessment and treatment units). Sadly, once someone is in an inpatient setting, it can be very hard to get back home.

My relative or person I care for is at risk of admission to a mental health hospital

If you have been told that your relative is at risk of being admitted to a mental health hospital (this might be called being ‘sectioned’ under the Mental Health Act), you can ask for a Care and Treatment Review (CTR). You may also find the Mental Health Act Code of Practice useful to read, as this is the guidance that mental health professionals should be following. It highlights, in particular the need for support from professionals who understand autism.

CTRs involve commissioners, clinicians and someone with lived experience known as an ‘expert by experience’. They ask questions about the care and support that a person needs, and they can be important in preventing people being admitted to hospital. CTR guidance for the NHS was updated to include more questions to identify autistic people’s needs and it is important these are used.

Bringing Us Together, a group of parents with experience of the system have prepared a guide for families. It contains a lot of information about CTRs.

My relative or person I care for is in a mental health hospital

If your relative is in a mental health hospital, it’s important to know what their rights are. You may find the Mental Health Act Code of Practice useful to read, as this is the guidance that mental health professionals should be following.

Mencap has produced guides for families in this situation. MIND also has a section of its website about legal rights under the Mental Health Act that could be very helpful.

It is also important that people who are in mental health hospitals have a CTR (as discussed in the section above) regularly. This should plan the care and support that someone needs to be discharged from hospital as soon as possible. Actions identified in the CTR need to be progressed and the CTR should be regularly reviewed. The Bringing Us Together guide for families will help explain this process. The organisation CHANGE has also produced a toolkit and a planner to help shape plans for discharging people from mental health hospitals.

Bringing Us Together and Mencap’s guides also contain useful information about what to do if you have concerns about the medication that your relative is on. The National Autistic Society has signed up to the STOMP pledge, to make sure that medication is not overused and we encourage more providers to sign up.

My relative or person I care for has been discharged from a mental health hospital

The focus when someone has been discharged is to make sure that all the care and support that they need is provided, so that they are not admitted to hospital again.

Our website provides information about getting the right care and support for autistic people, including the Care Act and the Mental Capacity Act, and their families or carers.  For people that have been in a mental health hospital, there are particular rights to ‘aftercare’ contained in s.117 of the Mental Health Act.

The Challenging Behaviour Foundation has also produced a film and information sheet about understanding behaviour that challenges.

Further help from our charity

Our helpline can provide some advice about getting the right care and support for autistic people. Unfortunately, the Helpline is not able to provide ongoing casework support.

If you or a relative or someone you care for is in this situation, this page provides some useful sources of advice. We have worked with families of autistic people who have been in mental health hospitals to put this information together. If you have information that you think should be included on this page, please email policy@nas.org.uk.

Other contacts

  • The Challenging Behaviour Foundation provides support for families of people with a severe learning disability and behaviour that challenges. This will include some autistic people who also have a learning disability.
  • Mencap’s Learning Disability Helpline can provide some support for people with a learning disability or their families. This will include autistic people who also have a learning disability.
  • MIND provide advice and information about mental health and being admitted to mental health hospitals, for adults.
  • YoungMinds provide advice and information about mental health for parents of children and young people with mental health problems.
  • CHANGE: The Discharge Toolkit and Planner - two new resources to help patients in specialist learning disability or mental health hospital services plan for leaving hospital.

If you need information about the law surrounding admission or detention in a mental health hospital, or getting the right care and support there are some the following organisations might be useful:

  • CASCAIDr (Centre for Adults’ Social Care – Advice, Information and Dispute Resolution)
  • Barrister Steve Broach has a blog called Rights in Reality that discusses a lot of these issues. He has also compiled a list of solicitors with experience in the field.

There are also groups of families and people with lived experience. You might find some of this helpful, for support and advice.

Last reviewed: 14 May 2018.