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The Matthew Garnett case highlights lack of progress on attitudes to autism

After 15-year-old Matthew Garnett, who has autism, was sectioned under the Mental Health Act after attacking members of his family, Sarah Harris and Khuram Mahmood examine why it has taken so long for him to receive appropriate medical treatment at a specialised unit.

By Sarah Harris & Khuram Mahmood

Autism. Most of you will have heard of it but I’m guessing a lot of you know very little about the lifelong developmental disability. From a young age, I spent a long time caring for my older brother who is mildly autistic. I attended classes, support groups and talks for people like me who had siblings with autism or Asperger’s Syndrome. My brother is one of the most incredible people I’ve ever met. He can make the most intricate drawings of buildings and his computer skills have been outstanding from a young age. Some of the world’s most creative minds such as film director Tim Burton, or pianist Wolfgang Mozart, have been affected by autism. However, autism also can negatively affect many individuals who have to deal with it on a daily basis.

Matthew Garnett, 15, has recently been in media headlines after the story of him being sectioned was brought to public attention. Matthew has autism as well as suffering from ADHD and was put into psychiatric care at the behest of his parents as a “ short-term emergency solution”. Seven months later and after an online petition garnering up to 250,000 votes, a spokesperson for NHS England has come forward to address the issue, only saying that Matthew will be moved in a matter of weeks to a specialist facility, with no set date as of yet.

Matthew was arrested after reports of him attacking members of his family were released. His parents were in fact the ones to make the decision to sign the paper work as they thought it to be a short-term solution for emergency care. However it is now been over a year and Garnett is still held in the psychiatric unit, simply because there are no places available at specialist autistic units. Matthew’s parents have told the media that Matthew believes he is being held ‘in prison’ for attacking his family. Now for someone like Matthew who suffers from a range of complex mental health issues as well as autism, this could potentially be traumatising and affect him negatively for the rest of his life. His father, Robin Garnett said, “even when he does eventually come out, what’s happened there means we will be starting at a worse point than when he went in.”

After an interview with Matthew’s parents on ‘This Morning’, Holly Willoughby stated, “it’s just incredibly sad, when you rely on the system at the most difficult time in your life and you just want to do the best for your son. And the best you can do is out of your control.” It’s clear that the problem with this case is the system and not Matthew. He has clearly been stripped of his basic human rights, as has his family. Not only this, but it has come to public attention that the staff dealing with Matthew at the unit have had no previous experience in dealing with autism. It raises the question as to whether anything would have been done about Matthew if his family had been unsuccessful in raising awareness of the case. It was clearly a colossal mistake on behalf of the system having kept him locked up, especially when it was against the wishes of his family. And why is it still taking so long for Matthew to get treatment at a proper unit?

The case has now reached the attention of major charities such as Mencap and the Challenging Behaviour Foundation, all of whom have said that the government should be careful in tackling Matthew’s case as it is a chance for them to restore faith in the general public in terms of cases like this. The NHS recently announced that Matthew is to be moved to ‘St Andrews’ in Nottingham which is known for its outstanding care for people with autism. However, as of yet no release date has been given.

All we can do now is hope that the system does not fail us again like it has done countless times before. I’m sure all of you hope that Matthew receives the care that he deserves very soon and the NHS admits to their fault on the matter.

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