In this commentary, autistic writer Alex Birch recounts her experiences with homelessness and calls attention to the barriers that autistic people too often encounter when trying to access services that will help them stay housed.
This commentary is part of the Voices of Disability Economic Justice Project, a partnership with TCF’s Disability Economic Justice Collaborative. Voices of Disability Economic Justice showcases disabled writers’ first-person perspectives on the economic issues that matter most to them.
I’m getting evicted. Again. Like many renters, “home” is somewhere that changes for me pretty often; my next home will be my fourth since COVID-19 hit in 2020.
Will my new “home” be a proper home, or homeless accommodation? I don’t know. Because finding somewhere new to live is very difficult. I’m autistic, which isn’t the sole cause of my precarious housing history—which included a year in a hostel, where overnight guests are banned, and I needed permission to do basic things like laundry. But has my neurodivergence made staying housed harder than it should be? Yes.
As it turns out, I’m not alone in thinking there’s a connection between autism and homelessness. An increasing body of research from the UK (where I live) shows that autistic adults like me are overrepresented in homeless populations.
An estimated one in sixty-seven people in the UK are autistic (less than 2 percent). But in one British study that screened homeless people for autism, almost 19 percent of respondents had scores indicative of autism—an incredibly high percentage.
This is an issue that ties in with the economic insecurity prevalent among autistic people. Our employment rates are disproportionately low, even relative to other disabled populations.
In one American study published in 2017, 61 percent of the autistic adults surveyed were employed. A low rate, sure—but UK government stats released in 2021 paint a much worse picture: just 22 percent of autistic people aged 16–65 were in employment.
Workplaces are often hostile environments for autistic people, as navigating unwritten social rules is a daily part of most jobs. The result? We’re excluded from a lot of employment opportunities.
With housing so closely tied to employment, it’s pretty surprising that attention to the experience of autistic homelessness hasn’t yet gained more traction. My suspicion is that lazy thinking about homelessness, combined with a lack of awareness of how autism presents in adults, has contributed to a knowledge gap around autistic homelessness.
The stereotypical image of a “homeless person” is a destitute person on the street, whereas autistic people are often stereotyped either as helpless children with a tragic disability, or as middle-class tech geeks. But both homelessness and autism are much more diverse experiences than people think. When it comes to homelessness, street sleepers are the most visibly affected. But many more people are “hidden homeless.” For example, they will “couch surf” with friends or relatives, or stay in shelters or hostels.
The stereotypes we hold aren’t just annoying; they could be contributing to autistic people’s high rates of homelessness. Homelessness can become a revolving door, something that people get stuck in. And research suggests that unrecognized, unaccommodated autism is preventing some homeless people from receiving effective help.
Researchers found that homeless people with high levels of autistic traits had a harder time engaging with services than their more neurotypical peers. For example, homeless shelters can be tough environments for autistic people who get overwhelmed from social stimuli.
Another issue is communicating with individuals who are assigned to “help.” At the hostel, I was assigned a support worker who was supposed to help me with my problems. Unfortunately, although she knew I was autistic, I don’t think she understood what that meant.
I struggled with the fact that she expected me to attend appointments via phone call exclusively. They were prone to being canceled or late. No one likes having their time wasted, but for autistics, the anxiety associated with phone calls, never mind delayed ones, can be intolerable. In the end, she dropped me for “poor engagement.”
My route out of homelessness was finding a cheap private rental through an autistic acquaintance, not through social housing. My support worker had helped me apply over the phone, but my application was rejected because the form was completed incorrectly. As it turns out, the phone calls weren’t sufficient.
Now I’m in the unenviable situation of losing the home I had, without being on a waiting list for secure, government-subsidized housing. I feel like I’m back where I started.
Safe, affordable housing should be accessible for all. Because it isn’t, policymakers and people who work with homeless and insecurely housed people must learn about autism in homeless people from the growing number of resources available. Without access to accommodations and support, far too many autistic people can become trapped in homelessness: an injustice that can and should be prevented.