Autism and homelessness – the missing piece of the puzzle?

Tuesday, 6 October 2015 - 4:00am

A new briefing and masterclass on the relatively unexplored link between autism and homelesness aim to help you improve the way you support people who are (or who you suspect may be) on the autistic spectrum.

Most support workers know that feeling when you’re supporting someone who is sleeping rough but nothing you do seems to have an impact. You’re offering options around housing and support, visiting them regularly, and yet they’re not engaging. It’s frustrating to see someone’s situation deteriorate despite your best efforts. But what if there’s a support need that you haven’t identified and an alternative approach you can take? Current work on autism and homelessness suggests that adapting support to meet the needs of people on the autistic spectrum might be the missing element in helping these harder to reach individuals away from homelessness.

The link between autism and rough sleeping is a relatively unexplored topic. There have been a few small studies – the Welsh Government found that 12% of people sleeping rough were on the autistic spectrum, while a small study in Devon identified 9 of 14 people sleeping rough long term could be classified as being on the autism spectrum. This suggests that we could be missing a key support need among a significant proportion of people who are on the streets.

In Camden, CRI’s outreach team realised that a man who had been sleeping rough for many years had undiagnosed needs. They had a sense that something was affecting his communication and decision making. The team contacted Liza at Resources for Autism to discuss how to change their approach, opening up new ways of working to engage and support their client effectively for the first time.

“…the team began to work in a much more directive way, limiting the choices David was given which they thought were confusing him. Instead they just simply told him he would be moving to a particular accommodation project and instead of describing it verbally they showed him images. When he moved there the outreach team visited him daily to help him establish a new routine. He is now settled and has no desire to return to the streets, despite the team later finding out he had been there for 30 years. His quality of life is now vastly improved and he is engaging in activities at the project”.

Liza Dresner, Director of Resources for Autism, has been delivering autism awareness workshops to London’s outreach workers. Her sessions explore how some people on the autistic spectrum struggle to make choices, imagine alternatives (e.g. what living in a hostel will be like) or adjust to changes in their routine. Workers attending her sessions have had many lightbulb moments as they make connections between these behaviours and their own clients. The sessions create excitement as workers understand how adapting their support – sometimes in a counter-intuitive way – can help more people off the streets.

Liza’s training shows how easily a person with autism can become homeless, and how difficult it may be for them to understand and access the support they need to leave the street.

We’ve worked with Liza to create a briefing about autism and homelessness, things to bear in mind and useful tips for engagement and support. The briefing can be found here and there’s another opportunity to attend one of Liza’s masterclasses on 25th November.

To share your own experience of supporting someone with autism to leave homelessness please email me: joanne.prestidge@homelesslink.org.uk.

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Jo Prestidge

Innovation and good practice project manager

Jo is an innovation and good practice project manager, leading a range of projects and training including Housing First England and Trauma Informed Care.