The research behind the Autism & Homelessness Toolkit

Monday, 1 April 2019 - 11:14am

To mark the launch of the Autism & Homelessness toolkit, Dr Alasdair Churchard writes this blog explaining what led to him conducting research in this area.

My interest in autism and homelessness comes from my experience of working with people experiencing homelessness, and research I have carried out as a clinical psychologist.

Before becoming a psychologist I was a keyworker in homelessness services for several years, mainly in quite large hostels for single homeless men. One of my aims in leading the development of the Autism & Homelessness Toolkit was to create something which I would have found useful when I was a frontline worker.

When I was choosing my research project as a trainee clinical psychologist I was offered the chance to do some work around autism and homelessness, as a professional in the autism field had identified that this was an area which needed further exploration. It is well established that autistic people are much more likely to experience significant social disadvantage, so I was surprised there was no peer-reviewed research published in academic journals about potential links between autism and homelessness. Autistic people have poor outcomes in a number of areas which are known to increase the risk of homelessness: 79% of autistic adults have had a mental health condition during their life, only one third are in some form of paid employment, and sustainable housing is a major issue. Given this it seemed probable that autistic people are at higher risk of homelessness, but beyond some small-scale studies this had not been investigated in any great depth.

The research project I co-led provided initial evidence of the prevalence of autism in a group of people experiencing homelessness. We did not show definitively what proportion of people experiencing homelessness are autistic, as making a diagnosis of autism requires a long assessment and ideally includes input from family members. We did not think this would be feasible in a homelessness context, so our goal instead was to find out whether there was any indication that rates of autism could be raised in the group of homeless people we studied. To do this we created a measure which gathered information from keyworkers about whether the person experiencing homelessness showed signs of autism. We used this measure to survey the entire caseload of a homelessness outreach team in an inner-city area in the UK.

12% of the people experiencing homelessness in our study showed strong signs of autism. This is dramatically higher than the general population prevalence of 1.1%. While our research could not definitively state that all the individuals showing strong signs of autism were autistic, even if some were misclassified the prevalence would still be much higher than the general population. Our research did identify many individuals whose behaviours appeared markedly autistic. For instance, one person we screened made lists of obscure musicians and had a large collection of broken electronics. This seemed to be a clear example of a tendency towards fixated interests, a characteristic of autism. Another person was described as talking like a character from a nineteenth century novel, an example of the autistic tendency towards having unusual intonation and using scripted language.

Further research is needed to explore the links between autism and homelessness, but this will take time. Given the clear findings from my research I felt that it was important not to wait for this to occur, but to offer homelessness workers information and strategies to support clients they are working with now who may be autistic. The Autism & Homelessness Toolkit is the result of this. This document has been developed in collaboration with people with lived experience, charities, local government and professionals.

Among people experiencing homelessness there are probably a sizeable number who are autistic, but this has never before been fully recognised. I hope that the toolkit will play a role in ending their homelessness.

The Autism & Homelessness toolkit can be found here: http://westminsterhhcp.org/Resources(4)/Autism_Homelessness_Toolkit.pdf

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Dr Alasdair Churchard

Alasdair Churchard is a Clinical Psychologist, researching autism and homelessness.