We have failed people with autism

Published by The i paper (31st May, 2021)

Dannielle Attree has spent half of her life being subjected to state-sanctioned abuse. She is only 24 years old but over the past 12 years this bright young woman has been held in solitary confinement, chemically coshed with drugs and violently restrained by groups of adults. She has been locked up in 18 different mental health institutions, forced to sleep on the floor, developed terrible eating disorders, been sexually assaulted by a staff member and become so despairing over her future that she has frequently tried to kill herself. All because she has autism in a country that does not care.

Last week, after all those years of torturous treatment, she was moved for the first time to a specialist centre for people with autism. It is hundreds of miles from her Kent home, yet her mother Andrea felt only relief as she travelled back from settling her daughter into a place that finally understands her condition. She is, however, under no illusions about the scale of challenge in trying to help ease Dannielle back into society after spending so long sectioned under mental health laws in unsuitable psychiatric institutions. “She is barely existing now,” said Andrea, a retail worker. “They have utterly broken my daughter.”

I remain stunned by the brutality, lack of compassion and flagrant denial of human rights in these disturbing stories, even after campaigning on this issue for three years and being contacted by so many desperate families left distraught by abusive treatment in the NHS.

Dannielle’s story is hideously familiar: a quirky child with undiagnosed autism who spiralled into crisis after hitting puberty and moving to secondary school, then when the family sought help “experts” reacted by locking the teenager in a psychiatric hellhole that only intensifies stress. Often the girls, like Dannielle, self harm and develop eating disorders as they internalise their struggles and mimic behaviour of others met inside hospitals.

Danielle moved from a unit where she was held in seclusion for 551 long and lonely days. For much of that time, she was made to sleep on the floor. Her room had only a plastic-covered concrete table, so low that she also had to sit on the floor to eat. She is a creative character yet she had no books, no music, no television – just a notepad for her despairing thoughts and drawings.

These would be unacceptable conditions to hold a prisoner convicted of a terrible crime. Yet this is permitted for a person with autism supposed to be getting help from the sanctified NHS – and often at huge expense from vampiric private companies ripping off taxpayers.

So what kind of society deems it acceptable to break citizens simply because they have autism? What kind of health and care system allows such abuse to carry on unabated rather than providing decent support so people can live fulfilling lives in their communities? What kind of dismal medics, hopeless bureaucrats and pathetic politicians keep saying they know this is wrong but fail to end the misery? And what kind of nation is so bigoted that it averts its gaze from grotesque mistreatment of a minority? The answer, sadly, is our own.

This week marks the 10th anniversary of the moment this scandal erupted into public view with the BBC’s Panorama exposé of abuse and neglect at Winterbourne View. An outcry led by the prime minister sparked prosecutions, six prison sentences and pledges to stop inflicting cruelties on citizens with autism and learning disabilities.

We heard promises to end use of assessment and treatment units that incarcerate people behind locked doors. Yet total numbers held have barely budged, with average length of stay more than five years, despite a barrage of inquiries and incisive reports plus several more disturbing documentaries. It is, as the Rightful Lives campaign group says, sickening that this barbarism is allowed to continue.

Why did the “Transforming Care” initiative launched after Winterbourne fail to empty these units? It was not for lack of good intentions – although Jeremy Hunt, then health secretary, admitted to friends that he struggled initially to believe the NHS could be guilty of such human rights abuses.

One Westminster source told me they focused on freeing people but failed to stop more being sent into the system. Alicia Wood, then a government adviser, blames the lack of accountability for the health commissioners responsible for inappropriate placements along with insufficient ring-fenced funds to stop the battles between health and social care over paying for support packages.

Regardless, it is unforgivable that so little has been achieved to stop the torment. This scandal exposes wider failings of inadequate autism diagnosis, fat cat private operators milking taxpayers, flawed psychiatric services reliant on restraint, mental health laws that lack accountability, watchdogs that lack teeth, political impotence and a shattered social care system even before the pandemic.

There has been so much talk, so many targets, so little effective action. Matt Hancock, the beleaguered health secretary overseeing these dehumanising and discriminatory policies, is just one among many officials and politicians who emote about seeing the suffering but then offer little more than hollow words.

One of the first cases I wrote about involved a man detained at Cawston Park in Norfolk, which was finally shut down last week after two years in special measures. Yet again, there was a report talking about failure to deliver compassionate care or treat people with dignity, along with standard concerns on safety and skills.

Almost everyone involved accepts our country is treating thousands of people with autism and learning disabilities in a cruel way and sees the need for a major injection of resources to boost or create genuine support in the community. But 10 years after Winterbourne, the horror story continues. This scandal exposes Britain as a place that happily consigns people such as Dannielle into hell – then callously turns its back on its modern-day update of Bedlam.

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