An autistic man who was detained in mental health hospitals for 42 years is enjoying living in a home of his own for the first time in his adult life.

Myles Cohen (above right), who was sectioned as a 17-year-old, was finally discharged from hospital in time to celebrate his 60th birthday.

Now he lives in a purpose-built bungalow in Sunderland with round-the-clock support of carers from the North East Autism Society (NEAS).

His next-door neighbour Derek Blenkinsop, 55, (above left) was on the same hospital ward as Myles and was discharged a month after him, also into the care of NEAS.

Now the pair are enjoying the freedom to grow tomatoes in a greenhouse, play pool in the local community centre, or visit libraries and museums. Even taking a bath when he wants is a novelty for Myles.

Their families have seen a big change. Myles’s mother Laura says: “Myles wasn’t stimulated in hospital at all. He was like an empty shell at times. Now he’s doing a lot of walking and getting out and about, I think it’s perfect.”

Derek’s sister Dawn (pictured below with Derek) says: “I thought I had lost Derek. Now he is in his own home and is much more himself again.”

Myles and Derek are two of the lucky ones. There are 2045 autistic people and people with learning disabilities in mental health units in England, most of them detained under the Mental Health Act which wrongly defines autism as a “mental disorder”.

The average stay is five and a half years, with one in five inpatients spending more than 10 years in hospital. An inpatient bed costs on average £450-£500 a day.

The government has repeatedly pledged to get people out of mental health institutions and into the community, following a string of abuse scandals such as Winterbourne View in 2011 and Whorlton Hall in 2019.

Instead, the numbers have risen. One of the reasons people end up stuck is the lack of community support and housing available outside hospital, with a 165,000 shortfall in the social care workforce. 

Kirsty Stuart, senior public law and human rights solicitor at Irwin Mitchell in Newcastle, says: “Once people are hospital-based, it’s very difficult to get them back out because the issues are exactly the same in terms of lack of support and housing.”

However, Myles and Derek benefited from a big push by Sunderland City Council to get people out of inpatient units and back into the community.

In the lead-up to the move, NEAS staff spent months working shifts with the pair in hospital, getting to know them and bringing them on transition visits to the bungalows.

Derek, who had been in hospital for two years, says: “I kept photos of the bungalow on my phone. I’m so pleased to be in here now, it makes me feel brilliant.

I have a greenhouse where I grow tomatoes and cucumbers for salads, and a garden where I plant flowers and strawberries with my care assistant Andy. Myles visits me most days but doesn’t stay long, he’s always on the move.

His sister Dawn lives five minutes away and is another frequent visitor to Derek’s home. Her family spent Christmas and New Year’s Day with him, and she says: “I used to go to bed and lie awake all night worrying. Now it feels like we’re back to normal life. I never thought I would see it.”

Myles was undiagnosed as autistic as a child, and spent some time in juvenile detention centres from the age of 12. After a breakdown during detention at 17, he was sectioned and spent the next 42 years of his life in inpatient units.

He says: “I moved about between different hospitals. It was OK, there was good food sometimes, but it’s better here. I had a big party for my 60th birthday soon after I moved in. Now like playing bingo, chess or cards, and I play pool at the local community centre.

I go up to the shops to buy a newspaper or get a cola and crisps. I like to go for walks too – I go all over. I’m much fitter now than I was.

His mother Laura admits to feeling apprehensive about how he would cope when she heard he was going to be discharged. “But that’s because I didn’t know he was going to get the care that he did,” she says. “It really couldn’t have worked out better.”

Christine Richmond, area manager of Independent Supported Living services at NEAS, said care staff had worked hard to ensure Myles and Derek adjusted to life in the community. “The transitions were the really important part. You have to get to know the person. They are both doing really well.”

John Phillipson, CEO of NEAS, adds: “Their case shows that with the proper assessment and preparation, there are a lot of people stuck in hospital who could be living in the community. Twelve years on from Winterbourne View, it’s time we learned these lessons.”