(CNN)Teenagers and young adults with severe autism are spending weeks or even months in emergency rooms and acute-care hospitals, sometimes sedated, restrained or confined to mesh-tented beds, a Kaiser Health News investigation shows.
These young people — who may shout for hours, bang their heads on walls or lash out violently at home — are taken to the hospital after community social services and programs fall short and families call 911 for help, according to more than two dozen interviews with parents, advocates and physicians in states from Maine to California.here, they wait for beds in specialized programs that focus on treating people with autism and other developmental disabilities, or they return home once families recover from the crisis or find additional support.The problem parallels the issue known as psychiatric boarding, which has been an increasing concern in recent years for a range of mental illnesses. Both trace to the shortcomings of deinstitutionalization, the national movement that aimed to close large public facilities and provide care through community settings. But the resources to support that dwindled long ago, and then came the Great Recession of 2008, when local, state and federal budget woes forced sharp cuts in developmental and mental health services.As more children with autism are identified, and as the population is growing larger and older, we see a lot more mental health needs in children and adolescents with autism,” explained Aaron Nayfack, a developmental pediatrician at Sutter Health’s Palo Alto Medical Foundation in California who has researched the rise in lengthy hospitalizations. “And we have nowhere near the resources in most communities to take care of these children in home settings.”Adolescents and young adults with severe autism may still have the mental age of a child, and short-term care to stabilize those in crisis who are nonverbal or combative is practically nonexistent. Longer-term care can be almost as hard to find. It must be highly specialized, usually involving intensive behavioral therapy; someone with severe autism gets little benefit from traditional psychiatric services.