BY YANN TEAR
High levels of autism among the homeless have prompted a council-led initiative to promote an awareness and guidance manual to help those on the frontline of caring for sufferers.
Autistic people are at significantly higher risk of being homeless, new research suggests, with those experiencing homelessness 10 times more likely to be showing strong signs of the condition than normal.
To coincide with Autism Awareness week, Westminster City Council has joined forces with the National Autistic Society, Resources for Autism and the homeless charities St Mungo’s and Homeless Link, to produce a helpful ‘toolkit’ offering tips about how to recognise and help those affected.
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, according to the local authority.
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.”
The manual aims to familiarise various social services and carers with the different aspects of autism and give them practical advice about how to help people experiencing homelessness who may be autistic.
Autism is a lifelong disability which affects how people communicate and interact with the world and can lead to unemployment, discrimination and homelessness.
The challenges autistic people face in communicating and interacting with others can lead to relationship breakdown and social isolation, the studies have found. 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 steering group to contribute to the toolkit.
Dr Churchard was also the lead author of a study into autism and homelessness, published in 2018, which found that 12 per cent of a group of people experiencing homelessness showed strong signs of autism, whereas only 1.1 per cent of the general public are thought to be autistic.
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. 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.”
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.”
Liza Dresner, director of the charity Resources for Autism, said: “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 can and has made a huge difference to helping rough sleepers. This toolkit will go a long way to helping with this.”
Tim Nicholls, head of policy at the National Autistic Society, said: “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. Autistic people who are homeless have gone unrecognised and unsupported for far too long.”