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.
There, 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.
Sixteen-year-old Ben Cohen spent 304 days in the ER of Erie County Medical Center in Buffalo. His room was retrofitted so the staff could view him through a windowpane and pass a tray of food through a slot in a locked door. His mother, who felt it wasn’t safe to take him home, worried that staff “were all afraid of him … [and] not trained on his type of aggressive behaviors.”
The hospital “is the incredibly wrong place for these individuals to go in the beginning,” said Michael Cummings, the Buffalo facility’s associate medical director and a psychiatrist who worked on Ben’s case. “It’s a balancing act of trying to do the … least harm in a setting that is not meant for this situation.”
Ben Cohen (Courtesy of Mary Cohen)
Nationally, the number of people with an autism diagnosis who were seen in hospital ERs nearly doubled from 81,628 in 2009 to 159,517 five years later, according to the latest available data from the federal Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. The number admitted also soared, from 13,903 in 2009 to 26,811 in 2014.
That same year, California’s state health planning and development department recorded acute-care hospital stays of at least a month for 60 cases of patients with an autism diagnosis. The longest were 211 and 333 days.
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.”
So, families struggle — with waiting lists for programs, low pay for government-supported in-home help and backlogged or ineffective crisis support. Often they’ve faced some of these challenges for years. Autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder typically diagnosed at a young age and characterized by impaired communication, difficulty with social interaction and repetitive behaviors that fall along a spectrum of mild to severe.
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.
General hospitals “are not really equipped to handle someone who is autistic,” said Mark De Antonio, director of adolescent inpatient services at Resnick Neuropsychiatric Hospital in Los Angeles. Several times a month, he said, he hears about patients with no immediate care options being medicated and sedated as they’re held. “It’s a huge problem.”
Alex Sanok (Courtesy of Ann Sanok and Geskus Photography)
In New Hampshire this summer, 22-year-old Alex Sanok spent a month in Exeter Hospital after he became violent at home, breaking windows and hurling objects at walls. His mother called 911, and paramedics spent half an hour trying to calm him before restraining him.
At the hospital, his wrists and ankles were strapped to an ER bed for the first week, and he spent several more weeks in a private room before he could be transferred, according to his mother, Ann Sanok. State agencies that handle developmental disabilities and mental health offered little help, she said.
As the days passed, she said, she and her husband wondered: “What if [Alex] escalates again, what are we doing to do? We were getting no answers. Everyone seemed to kick the can down the road.”
Exeter Hospital said in a statement that its policy is not to use restraints unless there is an “imminent threat to patient or staff safety” and that any use is reviewed hourly. Sanok was moved in June to a special-needs residential school in Massachusetts, where his mother said he is doing well.
The federal government does no routine tracking of how autism is treated in ERs, but many experts say the problem of lengthy and inappropriate stays is nationwide and growing. Kaiser Health News identified some of the more extreme cases through interviews with autism and disability advocates, physicians and families in California, New Hampshire, New York and six other states: Arizona, Connecticut, Maine, Maryland, Michigan and Rhode Island.