Autism, homelessness, and unemployment

Published by Rowan Hotham-Gough

My article on ‘good communication skills’ mentions the link between autism, homelessness, and unemployment. This article looks at these issues in more depth.

In England the average age of death for homeless people is 47 years old. This is one of the main findings of the ‘Homelessness kills’ report1 published in 2012 by Crisis (the UK national charity for single homeless people). Clearly, homelessness can be fatal. It can also be difficult to escape.

One difficulty with escaping homelessness is its relationship with being out of work. According to Crisis, being unemployed is a prime cause of homelessness.2 It is harder to keep your home when you do not have a job. And, without a home it is harder to find work.2

Unemployment and homelessness are bigger problems for people with autism than for most people. People with autism are less likely to have a job and more likely to become homeless.

According to research by the National Autistic Society:3

  • 15% of people with autism have full-time jobs;
  • 9% have part-time jobs.

The employment rates for both non-disabled people and disabled people are far higher:4

  • 57% of non-disabled people have a full-time job; 19% part-time;
  • 31% of disabled people have a full-time job; 16% part-time.

12% of adults with autism in Wales have been homeless at some point. This is according to a survey conducted in 2010 by the National Autistic Society (NAS) Cymru.5

The relationship between autism and homelessness is an acute problem. However, I could not find any research that directly explores this issue. Apart from the survey by the National Autistic Society (NAS) Cymru, the only other research I found was a report published in 2010 by Professor Colin Pritchard at Bournemouth University.6 The aim of his research was to evaluate a project used in Devon (England) to encourage entrenched rough sleepers into accommodation.

What is entrenched rough sleeping?

Rough sleeping is just one of the ways that a person can be homeless. Some homeless people live in temporary or licensed accommodation. Because they do not have a tenancy agreement, such people have little or no legal protection. Landlords can evict them at short notice. Some people live temporarily in a homeless shelter. Others ‘sofa surf’, moving between the homes of friends and relatives.

Rough sleeping is often the last resort for homeless people. Technically, it means sleeping in a place that was not designed for human habitation. Entrenched rough sleepers have a long history of sleeping rough. They do not respond to the usual types of support offered to homeless people. The support that local authorities and charities give homeless people is usually not suitable for entrenched rough sleepers. They tend to have multiple and complex needs that require more individual support.

Pritchard’s report found that 9 of the 14 entrenched rough sleepers in the project could be categorised along the adult autistic spectrum.6 7 of the 14 clients had been diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD). This suggests that many homeless people with a long history of sleeping rough might be on the autistic spectrum.

With so little research it is hard to know the full scale of the problem. Also, no one seems to know why it is that people with autism are at such a high risk of becoming homeless. There is clearly a great need for research into this issue.

There are a few things that I want to suggest about the relationship between autism, unemployment, and homelessness:

Firstly, I think that there is nothing inevitable about people with autism becoming homeless. Pritchard’s research found that, with personalised support, 5 of the 7 clients diagnosed with an ASD had moved indoors (4 into flats; 1 staying in B&B’s intermittently).6 This was a short-term achievement (it is important to know how successful projects like this are over the longer-term). Nevertheless, it does indicate that these people might not have become rough sleepers if service providers gave the right support earlier on. In fact, the researcher found that entrenched rough sleeping might appear like a ‘choice’, but actually rough sleepers are not given the care they need at the outset.

Secondly, barriers to work might partly explain the high rate of homelessness among people with autism. In Pritchard’s research, unemployment was a factor in the homelessness of at least some of the clients with autism.6 It was not possible to establish why all these clients had become homeless (these sorts of questions could have undermined the relationship the project staff were trying to build). However, details of the clients’ personal cases do show that relationship difficulties, mental health problems, and unemployment were common factors. These are common causes of homelessness. If researchers are going to explain why homelessness is such a big problem for people with autism, they will need to measure the impact of these factors. They will need to explore issues like barriers to work.

Finally, I believe that there is a bureaucratic barrier to homeless people with autism getting the support they need. The entrenched rough sleepers could not access community care services because they did not meet Fair Access to Care Services (FACS) thresholds.6 Pritchard’s report seems to suggest that service providers depend too much on formal criteria and diagnoses when deciding who gets support. It is clear from their personal details that these clients were vulnerable. Many had experienced violence, bullying, and exploitation. I think that service providers should have given these homeless people the care they needed. They should not have denied that care for so long just because of formalities.


I would like to express my gratitude to Professor Colin Pritchard for giving me access to his report and for his useful advice. This article would not have been possible without his support.


All links are correct as of 7 April 2013.

  1. Thomas, B., 2012. Homelessness kills: An analysis of the mortality of homeless people in early twenty-first century England. [pdf] Available at: Crisis website <>.
  2. Crisis. n.d. Work and Skills – Causes and consequences – Crisis. [online].
  3. The National Autistic Society (NAS), 2012. The undiscovered workforce – working locally to improve employment rates. [online].
  4. Office for Disability Issues (ODI), 2011. B1 – Employment rates. [pdf] Available only via direct link <> [Data Source: Labour Force Survey, Quarter 2, 2011].
  5. The National Autistic Society (NAS), 2011. The life we choose: shaping autism services in Wales. [pdf] Available at: The NAS website <>.
  6. Pritchard, C., 2010. An Evaluation of the Devon Individualised Budget project to encourage rough sleepers into accommodation. [project report] Exeter City Council.