The National Autistic Society's campaign to redefine the definition of autism


Getting the right support for mental health issues is absolutely vital for autistic people. Autism is not a mental health condition, but many autistic people develop separate mental health problems. Often this can stem from a lack of appropriate support, which means that autistic people can develop more significant needs.

At the National Autistic Society, we have been campaigning for better mental health support for a long time. Our charity’s work has included pushing for quicker autism diagnosis, getting mental health support after diagnosis, and reducing the number of autistic people who are ‘sectioned’.

Change the Definition – Change the Destination

In order to address the national scandal of too many autistic people being sectioned we must address problematic definitions within our laws. We have serious concerns with the current definition of “mental disorder” within the Mental Health Act which means that autistic people can find themselves treated inappropriately.

Ask Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, to review the definition now

With the current wording in the Act, if someone with a mental health disorder is perceived to be a risk to themselves or other people and although some other conditions are met, they can be detained under and admitted to a mental health hospital. This means that autistic people can be sectioned without having a mental health problem.

As our Transforming Care: our stories report showed, inpatient mental health hospitals are often the wrong place for autistic people to get the right support. Evidence suggests that they can be at risk of being restrained and over-medicated. Too many people can end up ‘stuck’, being supported by staff who often don’t understand autism. And all too often nobody takes responsibility for finding the right place for people to move into the community.

Being treated under the Mental Health Act should be a last resort, but at the moment too many autistic people end up being sectioned who could have been supported in different and much better ways.

The definition of mental disorder in the Mental Health Act must be changed to ensure that autistic people receive the right support at the right time in their community. We are asking the Health Secretary Matt Hancock to review this definition and end the national scandal of too many autistic people being detained under the Mental Health Act.