Spotlight: Autism is not a mental illness

Under the UK Mental Health Act 1983, autism is defined as a mental disorder. This inaccurate representation of people on the autistic spectrum can lead to even more confusion, and harm, when caring for autistic people who are experiencing mental ill health.

It is time to lift the veil of darkness on autism and mental health.

Autism is not a mental illness. This is the defiant message shared by Tim Nicholls, head of policy for the National Autistic Society. It is a message that is accurate, important, and one that can be overlooked in society and in medical circles.

Tim explains: “Autism is not a mental illness in itself – it is a lifelong disability rather than a health condition, and cannot be treated. Maintaining autism under the definition of mental disorder without any qualification is not acceptable, as it gives professionals discretion to deprive someone of their liberty even where they don’t have a mental health problem, and it is discriminatory.”

The National Autistic Society has been working tirelessly to redefine autism within the Mental Health Act 1983 (which will be called the Act for the rest of this article).

Last year, the UK Government announced a review of the Act would take place to discover how well it actually works for people, including those on the autism spectrum or with learning disabilities.


Released in May of 2018, the interim report revealed the findings of the Act to date. The main backing for the review was to see the views and experiences of service users, carers, relevant professionals, and effects on organisations. Within the interim report there was a focus on learning disabilities and autism and how this can coincide with mental health conditions.

The report stated: “We have heard concerns about inappropriate use of the Mental Health Act in relation to people with a learning disability or autism, potentially linked to lack of appropriate alternative provision in the community.” The review is working to rectify the misunderstanding of autism, learning disability, and mental health by speaking with people directly affected.

“Without the right support for mental health problems, autistic people can reach crisis stage.”

At present, the Act’s definition of mental disorder includes autism, meaning that autistic people can be sectioned under the Act without having a mental health problem.

Tim adds: “While the definition of mental disorder for people with a learning disability was amended to exclude those who were not also displaying “abnormally aggressive or seriously irresponsible conduct”, autism has remained unamended within the Act.

“A good understanding of autism is important because mental health conditions in children on the autism spectrum can present differently to those in children who are not autistic, while some aspects of autism can be mistaken for mental illness.”


Statistically one in four people will experience a mental health condition during their lifetime. That is a significant amount of the general population. Granted, discussions on mental health has improved in recent years with the stigma and taboo decreasing the more people open up about their lived experiences.

Unfortunately, for people with a learning disability or autism, the stigma of experiencing mental ill health continues – due to a lack of awareness.

Tim adds: “When the professionals supporting autistic children with mental health problems have a good understanding of autism, parents report that their children receive much better-quality support.” And this is imperative to help receive the right diagnosis all the way to treatment and guidance.

Credit: National Autistic Society on Twitter

“Autistic people often tell us that a lack of understanding from the services that they reach out to means they struggle to access them,” Tim continues. “We also know that the general public’s attitudes and lack of understanding about autism can lead to autistic people shutting themselves away because of stares, judgement, or even abuse.”

Understanding of autism is slowly improving, especially with figures such as Anne Hegerty entering the I’m A Celebrity… jungle and opening up about her experiences with Asperger syndrome.

However, autistic people (79 per cent) and their parents (70 per cent) still feel socially isolated. This feeling of isolation is not only detrimental, it can impact on a person’s mental health.


As discussion into the Act and the language used progresses, it is important to remember that a lack of recognition of mental health conditions and missed support can increase the likelihood of developing mental illness.

From anxiety, depression, obsessive compulsive disorder, and more: research suggests that 70 per cent of autistic children have a mental health problem; with a high prevalence of mental illness in autistic adults, too.

“Autism is not a mental illness in itself – it is a lifelong disability.”

Tim emphasises: “Without the right support for mental health problems, autistic people can reach crisis stage or behave in a way that is challenging, meaning that they can be taken to a mental health hospital.” Despite the worrying prospects out there for autistic people who may or may not have a mental health condition, there is support.


The review into the current definition of autism within the Act is ongoing, but change is imminent. Continuing to advocate for improved awareness of mental health is the first step to acceptance; highlighting the importance of understanding the distinctions between autism, a learning disability, or any other disability, and mental health is imperative.

Improving access to health services will have a positive impact on people with learning disability or autism receiving the right support.

The Foundation for People with Learning Disabilities, a sister charity of the Mental Health Foundation, has worked with people and families of those with a learning disability and found that many feel their mental health is not as supported as their physical health.

To rectify this gap, the charity provides support services, free resources, circles of support, and online forums for guidance. Helping hands paired with improved understanding and awareness, plus new terminology and guidelines within the Act will bring mental health and learning disability or autism out of the darkness.

If you are experiencing mental illness, it’s time to talk. Visit the Samaritans  or call 116 123 for confidential advice.

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