The National Autistic Society has welcomed the Government response to the public consultation of the Mental Health Act White Paper, which includes proposals to find the best way to change the definition of “mental disorder” so it no longer includes autism.

The Government has promised to go ahead with its proposals to change mental health law in England and Wales and this includes introducing a duty to provide adequate community services and making Care and Treatment Review actions enforceable. 

Further reading

The charity said it was important to remember that the reforms will take years to come into force. There will need to be a new law to amend the Mental Health Act and that will have to be voted on in Parliament.  

It added that the Government and NHS need to stop autistic people reaching crisis in the first place, by investing in better social care and mental health services that work for autistic children and adults. 

And that changes must start with publishing the new national autism strategy without delay.

Mental Health Act White Paper

The Independent Review of the Mental Health Act, chaired by Professor Sir Simon Wessely, which reported in December 2018, concluded that the Act does not always work as well as it should for patients, nor for their families and carers. It proposed recommendations for change. In response to the Independent Review, the Government published a White Paper, which accepted the vast majority of the Review’s recommendations and sought views on the impact of these recommendations and how best to implement them in practice.

The definition of “mental disorder” in the Mental Health Act currently includes autism, which means you can be sectioned for being autistic, even if you don’t have a mental health condition.

The White Paper proposes to change this for one important type of ’section’, sometimes called a ’section 3’. This would mean that autistic people couldn’t be sectioned for longer than 28 days unless it is to treat another mental health condition. Autistic people could still be detained in two circumstances:

  • For “assessment” for up to 28 days (sometimes called a ‘section 2’). If during this time the assessment does not find a mental health condition, then there would no longer be grounds to detain the autistic person.
  • In cases where otherwise it would mean someone would go to prison (sometimes called “criminal justice” or “Part 3” sections). This would mean that autistic people could still be diverted away from prison to get more support. 

Invest in better social care and mental health services 

New NHS data shows that in June 2021 there were 2,075 autistic people and people with learning disabilities in inpatient mental health hospital and 1,200 (58%) of these people are autistic. 

Despite some progress moving people with a learning disability out of hospital and into the community, the number of autistic people in inpatients facilities has increased. In 2015, autistic people made up 38% of the number in hospital and now it is 58%. 

Tim Nicholls, Head of Policy and Public Affairs at the National Autistic Society, said: “We will keep holding the Government to account and fighting for changes to end the scandal of autistic people being stuck in mental health hospitals. It’s totally wrong that anyone could be forced to live many miles away from their friends and families and, in some awful cases, be overmedicated, inappropriately restrained and kept in isolation. 

“This week is an important milestone, with the Government promising to go ahead with its proposals to change mental health law. As part of this they’ve committed to finding a way to change the definition of ‘mental disorder’ in the Mental Health Act, so it no longer includes autism. This will help stop people being sectioned, just because they’re autistic, and is something we and hundreds of thousands of campaigners have been calling for. Now it needs to happen."