In this blog Jane Harris, our Director of External Affairs, sets out what’s going wrong with Assessment and Treatment Units (ATUs) and other mental health hospitals, and what you can do to support the vital campaigns to change this unacceptable situation.

What’s going wrong?

“In recent weeks, the appalling situation of thousands of autistic people in Assessment and Treatment Units has come to the nation’s attention again. We’ve heard really worrying stories about people in seclusion, being restrained and overmedicated. 

We think there are two main reasons why there are too many people ending up in ATUs when they shouldn’t be, for too long and too often being treated badly:

  • first, professionals working in Assessment and Treatment Units do not get the right training around autism so people are ending up being given treatments which are completely inappropriate if you are autistic. We also hear from autistic people who tell us that staff in other mental health services don’t understand autism either, meaning too many people reach crisis point without support. Then they might find themselves being admitted to an ATU.
  • second, there is an issue about the money. At the moment, if you are treated in an ATU your care is paid for by the NHS. If you want to move somewhere which is the right kind of place for you in the community, where you can be happy, supported and live the life you want, councils need to take on the cost of your care. But many councils don’t have the services or funds. This means there is a problem with how places are funded at the moment: to get someone from the wrong care to the right care, means that the funding needs to be moved to the right place. 

We need to fix both these problems. 

What’s being done to change things?

Many individuals and organisations have been campaigning to try to ensure that nobody was treated inappropriately in inpatient mental health care for a long time. Organisations like Mencap, the Challenging Behaviour Foundation and politicians like Norman Lamb, when he was Minister of State for Care. 

And family members of people in Assessment and Treatment Units have done an enormous amount to advocate for change. People like Isabelle and Robin Garnett, Sara Ryan, Cath Dyer and, recently, Jeremy, Bethany’s Dad have told people about this terrible situation to make sure politicians and commissioners are motivated to do all they need to do to change this. 

This is an issue we have been trying to change for many years. In the last few weeks, our charity has written to Matt Hancock, the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care in England. We’ve said he needs to go and see an Assessment and Treatment Unit, with his own eyes. We think it is really important that he goes himself and personally experiences what is happening to people in these institutions. We have also talked to the Scottish Government. And we’ve briefed MPs and we worked with journalists, particularly so that they can contact family members of people in ATUs so there are even more stories in the media about it. 

Thank you to everyone who has campaigned so far, this is about everybody working together to solve the situation, not any one organisation working alone.  

And there’s more to do.

What next and how you can help

There are still far too many autistic people getting the wrong kind of treatment in this units (and data suggests that numbers are increasing). There are too many families struggling without the information and support they need, feeling they are left alone to fight battles and that every pressure is on their shoulders, rather than being shared. 

We want to change that. In the next few weeks, you will see a new report from us, setting out the specific changes we think need to be made to try and solve this crisis, once and for all. And we’ll be asking you to help ensure this gets as much attention as possible.

And, right now, there is a petition, started by autistic campaigner Kevin Healey, on the parliament.uk website, which we are backing. 

We would like as many of our supporters as possible to add their names to the petition. If enough people sign it, there is a chance we will get another debate in Parliament to raise the profile of this issue and explore what needs to be done at national and local level to end this crisis.

I can promise you that we at the National Autistic Society will not stop campaigning about this until we are sure that nobody is being treated inappropriately in an Assessment and Treatment Unit. 

Thank you all for your continued support."

Jane Harris


Sign the petition