LEGAL EAGLE: Moves to prevent 'scandal' of people with autism being wrongly detained

After being sectioned following a mental health crisis in 2001, Tony Hickmott, who is 45, has not been released, despite efforts made by his family to fight this. He has now been told he can finally go home.

“In 2021, a select committee of MPs backed calls from campaigners to end the scandal of autistic people being wrongly detained.”
“In 2021, a select committee of MPs backed calls from campaigners to end the scandal of autistic people being wrongly detained.”

Last year, a judge criticised his detention, telling authorities that they need to find him a home near his parents. Now a care team is being assembled and Mr Hickmott is due to be in his new home tomorrow, although his parents are fearful of further delays.

Mr Hickmott has been living a two-hour drive away from his parents in a secure Assessment and Treatment Unit which is designed to be a short-term safe space used for people with learning difficulties in a crisis. In 2013, Mr Hickmott was deemed to be “fit for discharge” by psychiatrists but authorities failed to put together a care package with appropriate support in the community. It was in December 2021, when Mr Hickmott’s parents took the case to the Court of Protection, that a senior judge ordered managers at the NHS and Brighton & Hove City Council to stick to a thorough timetable to find Mr Hickmott a home.

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A whistle blower who had worked at the ATU between 2015 and 2017 as a support worker told the BBC that Mr Hickmott was the “loneliest man in the hospital” as he was living in segregation.

This year, the Care Quality Commission (CQC) said Mr Hickmott's hospital was failing to meet people's needs. The report highlighted shortages of qualified and competent staff, a lack of training, high levels of restrictive interventions and overuse of medication. The CQC said that the hospital has now been taken out of special measures but still “requires improvement”.

Currently there are around 2,000 people with learning difficulties or autism detained in specialist hospitals across England – 100 of them have been held for longer than 20 years.

In 2021, a select committee of MPs backed calls from campaigners to end the scandal of autistic people being wrongly detained. They said that such hospitals should be closed by 2024.

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In June this year, the government published a draft Mental Health Bill which redefines “mental disorder” in the Mental Health Act so that it no longer included autism or learning difficulties. If this was enacted, then the NHS and authorities would need to provide sufficient resources to prevent people with autism reaching crisis point and having nowhere to go.