Improving housing and employment support for people on the autism spectrum

By Emily Green

“I was referred to Aspire for support because I’ve been in emergency homeless accommodation for over two years, trying to move back to where my family support network is. I received notice to say my temporary accommodation was coming to an end, so I would be homeless. I had no idea what to do or where to go.”

Steve is one of numerous Homelessness Prevention Service beneficiaries with an autism diagnosis. Autism means different things for different individuals - it is a spectrum condition, and, for some people, accompanies conditions like ADHD, mental health problems or substance misuse. Autistic people may experience common traits such as repetitive behaviours, highly-focused interests, sensory sensitivities and difficulty navigating social interactions.

“My autism is a strength when it comes to organisation - I’m good with clear-cut rules and familiar systems. But when things started going wrong with housing, I just shut down, went into myself and didn’t feel like I could ask for help, so things got worse and worse. Sometimes when I’m trying to get my point across and I can’t get it into words, I blurt out what to say and come across the wrong way.”

Autistic people often face obstacles which may make them more likely to fall into homelessness. Barriers observed by our Homelessness Prevention team include:

  • Misconception of people on the autism spectrum as difficult or non-engaging because their social perception and communication skills may be different
  • Penalisation of autistic people by housing providers and local councils for the reactions they are unable to control when they feel overwhelmed and go into crisis - such as aggression or shutting down
  • A lack of reasonable in-work adjustments to help autistic people feel comfortable in their working environment
  • Distress caused by a lack of routine to communication from support services, or regular reassignment of support workers

“When I finally did get the diagnosis it started to help, but because I’m an adult there isn’t as much support - you have to rely on family. When COVID happened, the support completely stopped.”

Receiving a diagnosis later in life - or not at all -  and not receiving the right support can lead to autistic people feeling disconnected from a sense of belonging. 79% of people with autism feel socially isolated and have also experienced mental health difficulties. Having a dual diagnosis of autism and mental health conditions is another common barrier, as specialist services may exclude those who do not fit neatly into one category. 

“A lot of the things Aspire have helped me with, I wouldn’t have known. Council systems are not particularly user-friendly for anyone - let alone people that struggle with their needs. Aspire's service has been valuable because they asked me what I want first - what would make me comfortable. Pointing me in the right direction, being there to help and doing hard things for me - it’s exactly what I needed and what I haven’t had before.”

Although no substitute for specialist autism support services, Aspire’s Homelessness Prevention team can be a consistent point of contact and source of information for autistic people threatened with homelessness. In West Oxfordshire, 5% of Homelessness Prevention Service users in the last 6 months have been autistic.

We are regularly reflecting on how our support can be better tailored to the needs of neurodivergent people - what we have learned so far is that individual needs widely differ from person to person, and all services must be held to a high standard of accessibility to ensure people with autism are not excluded from their systems. 

Want to learn more? This homelessness and autism toolkit produced by the National Autism Society amongst others is a great place to start:

Autism and Homelessness Toolkit