With only 16 per cent of the adult autistic population in full-time employment logic follows that there will be a corresponding reliance on housing benefit. The current national housing shortage means that there is a lack of social housing, with increasing numbers of people from all communities having to rely on an insecure and poorly regulated rental market.
Private landlords operate purely for profit. Tenants must adapt to the building environment and condition on offer to remain housed. But what happens when housing does not meet the needs of an autistic person or family, and how does the housing system affect autistic individuals and their ability to remain housed long enough to create a home?
There is compelling evidence that homelessness is more common within the autistic population after a report by the National Autistic Society Cymru found that 12 per cent of participants had experienced homelessness.
As a single mother and carer my housing costs have been fully supported by local authority housing benefit for decades. I have never been in a financial position to own my home and have had to seek housing in the rental sector, often having to rely on a family member to secure my tenancy by acting as guarantor. Financial constraints have meant having to take housing less than ideal for any family with young children – small and terraced or flats above shops with no outside access. But combine these environments with young autistic children and it does not take long for neighbours to begin complaining about noise levels – screaming because having fingernails clipped is intolerable to the senses, night terrors because the next day at school is too anxiety provoking, heavy footsteps because gross motor movements are not fluid, repetitive noise making in order to self regulate.
All of this is directly attributable to autistic children having to navigate a largely inflexible neurotypical world and responding to the challenges that this brings. Unfortunately the systems that should have been in place to support an autistic family instead placed us on the cusp of homelessness, for which we were made to feel at fault.
Living in rental property meant that as a tenant I was unable to undertake any adaptations that may have reduced the “autistic noise” and instead our local council used its anti-social behaviour policy to investigate my autistic children. The council was fully aware that my children are autistic and subjected us to humiliating levels of surveillance – including the installation of noise recording equipment, which was used to record every second of distress that my children encountered. Autistic communication of distress is not anti-social and the utilisation of anti-social behaviour policy for situations that have arisen purely due to autistic behaviour is wrong and can have devastating consequences, which in our case was eviction. What profit-driven private landlord wants the hassle or the expense of adapting a property to make it suitable for autism?
Our family was rehomed in local social housing but with nothing to help suppress the noise levels and so we occasionally revisit complaints from neighbours. My children are unable to regulate the noises they make. They have innate perceptual, communication and developmental differences that make it impossible for them to do so. And yet we are still met with expectations to do so.
Local councils should stop using anti-social behaviour pathways to regulate difficulties surrounding autism acceptance within communities.
There should be clear differentiation between anti-social noise and noise that is directly attributable to neurological differences such as autism. Ultimately, housing policy and legislation should reflect this too, because living with the continual fear that your family may be subject to eviction proceedings due to unsuppressed autism only feeds a perpetual cycle of anxiety and distress, and contributes to an unhelpful stereotype of autism.