Charities Are Studying the Link Between Autism and Homelessness

A study last year found that 12 percent of people sleeping on the streets were on the autistic spectrum, and homelessness charities are now beginning to examine how best to tackle the issue.

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Apr 28 2016, 5:00pm

Photo by Chris Bethell

In 2015, the Welsh government released a report that stated 12 percent of people sleeping on the streets were on the autistic spectrum. Consider that the National Health Service estimates suggest around one in 100 people in the UK have an autistic spectrum disorder, and you can see that the number of autistic rough sleepers clearly isn't proportional.

According to homeless charity Crisis, unemployment is the biggest cause of homelessness. The National Autistic Society (NAS) says that unemployment is a bigger problem for people with autism than it is for those with other disabilities. In fact, according to the NAS, 26 percent of graduates on the spectrum are unemployed, by far the largest rate of any disability group—which may go some way to explaining the link the Welsh government found between autism and homelessness.

Recently, a discussion has started between the charity Homeless Link and the north London charity Resources for Autism about the possibility that a significant number of autistic men and women are homeless, whose specific needs are going undetected by the authorities and support services.

Liza Dresner, manager of Resources for Autism, argues that there are a number of reasons why having an autistic spectrum disorder could lead people to become homeless in the first place, and then be a barrier to them accessing support. She explains that for someone with autism who is struggling to live by traditional social rules, sleeping on the streets can be a way for them to take charge of his or her life.

"People with autism want to be in control—it makes them feel safe," says Dresner. "For somebody with autism, weird as it sounds, being on the street may feel much more like they're in control than in a hostel, where they're having to engage with other people, where the environment is really alien."

Of the 3,500 people sleeping rough in England each night, some will be entrenched rough sleepers—people who have a long history of sleeping on the streets and are more difficult to reach. Dresner says that from the stories she has heard from charities and outreach workers, she is "convinced that there is a connection" between autism and entrenched rough sleeping.

In 2010, a project in Devon that aimed to encourage rough sleepers to move into accommodation found that nine of the 14 entrenched rough sleepers they spoke to were autistic. If these figures were found to be replicated on a larger scale, it would show a huge number of people living on the streets whose needs aren't even recognized, let alone being dealt with.

Under Dresner, Resources for Autism has started running training sessions to help outreach workers identify signs of autism in entrenched rough sleepers. Usually outreach workers focus on offering people as much choice as possible, but for people with autism, this can be overwhelming and alienating.

Dresner says, "All I'm doing is getting people to think differently. The big difference is saying: Stop talking so much, and stop trying to get people to make lots of choices. Instead, say, 'This is the rule.' You have to be honest and say, 'There is no choice—you're going indoors.' That's been the big difference, but people are very uncomfortable with that because we're all about allowing people to make choices. It's totally alien to what everybody's been told, but I don't care—I'm telling people anyway, and it's working."

A few weeks after receiving the training, Ian Bagley, an outreach worker for Homeless Link, met a man he had been trying to bring off the street for several months. It was the middle of winter, and the team was concerned that the man might get pneumonia. They kept trying to offer him a big coat, but each time, he would get angry and draw away.

Dresner suggested that the coat might be making the man uncomfortable, and that his aversion to it could be a sign of the heightened sensory awareness sometimes associated with autism. By offering him a lighter waterproof instead, the team managed to reach out to him and bring him in.

In training outreach workers to identify signs of autism in homeless people, Dresner and her team believe they are making the first steps towards tackling what could be a widespread problem—one that could be leaving hundreds of people without access to support, shelter, and stability.

"It has been incredibly successful," she says. "We've got people indoors who have been outdoors for years."

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