Equal rights at the end of life for people with autism

Michael Baron, a National Autistic Society founder parent, whose son Timothy is 60, says of the concept of “a good death”: “At the age of 86, I want that for myself, but just as much I want that end of life conversation for people on the autism spectrum like my son.”

Michael, who is frequently asked to speak at conferences on the issue of ageing, autism and end of life care, has just contributed to what he calls “necessary and timely” guidance on end of life care for people with autism or a learning disability which is to be published on Friday – my Guardian piece here explains more.

The guidance from the British Institute of Learning Disability (BILD), Peaceful, Pain Free and Dignified: palliative and end-of-life-care for people on the autism spectrum, is unique due to its autism-specific focus and its step-by-step descriptions of how health and social care staff can offer better care.

“As his family, we don’t want the manner of Timothy’s death to be decided solely by others,” explains Michael. “He may be disabled and lack legal capacity but nonetheless, a ‘good death’ involves meaningful conversations [between individuals, families and staff] that acknowledge the absence of legal rights but the enduring presence of human rights. Families should be consulted [throughout end of life care] and no decision should be made which has not already been discussed, that is the minimum human right to which someone is entitled to.”

The UK is home to around 1.5 million learning disabled people, but the real figure, including the undiagnosed, may be higher. BILD says that by 2030, there will be a 30% increase in the number of adults with learning disabilities over 50 using social care (no figures exist for older autistic adults). This population faces health inequalities; the 2013 Department of Health-funded confidential inquiry into premature deaths of people with learning disabilities found that people die on average 16 years earlier than they should, because of poor diagnosis and treatment.

“We all wish for a pain free, peaceful and dignified end to our lives,” says Lesley Barcham, BILD’s ageing well project manager, “but for people with learning disabilities or autism, who may not be able to speak up for themselves, it can feel like this isn’t something they can control.”The publication stresses how autism or a learning disability affects end-of-life care. People may have verbal and non-verbal communication difficulties, for example.

Some support exists – advice on helping bereaved people with learning disabilities and the voluntary PCPLD Network (Palliative Care for People with Learning Disabilities) connecting disability and palliative care professionals – but learning disability end-of-life care has a low profile. A recent European Association for Palliative Care taskforce report on people with intellectual disabilities, describes “a largely invisible population with hidden needs”, warning of “a risk that their needs are therefore not seen as a priority, or even as a problem”.

As Ferguson says, there is a much wider question at stake. “It’s a much bigger issue about early diagnosis and early treatment planning for vulnerable individuals who struggle with self-advocacy…People with a learning disability or autism should have access to the same care that the rest of us do”.

* You can read more about how Timothy Baron and the first Society for Autistic Children – which became the National Autistic Society – in this good piece by his sister, Saskia, a journalist and TV producer.

About Saba Salman

Saba Salman is a social affairs journalist and commissioning editor who writes regularly for The Guardian. Saba is a trustee of the charity Sibs, which supports siblings of disabled children and adults, and an RSA fellow. She is a former Evening Standard local government and social affairs correspondent.
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