Improving the sensory environments of mental health in-patient facilities for autistic children and young people

Gemma Williams, Jill Corbyn, Angie Hart

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Poor mental health – compared to that of the neurotypical child population – is a serious concern for many autistic children and young people around the world. In the UK, we have an increasing number of autistic young people receiving care in NHS funded in-patient mental health facilities. While sensory processing differences have now been added to international diagnostic criteria for autism, recent autistic-led and co-produced, practice-based research commissioned by the Children and Young People’s Mental Health Taskforce and delivered by National Development Team for Inclusion has identified that knowledge of autistic sensory differences and needs is institutionally absent.

In particular, the sensory environments of NHS England-funded in-patient facilities were found to present sometimes extreme challenges for autistic young people that at best hinder wellbeing and at worst exacerbate existing mental health problems: instigating a cycle of progressing upwards through increasingly restrictive settings for some.

This paper shares some of this learning, gained from the consultation with young autistic people who have experience of inpatient services and autistic Experts by Experience working on novel sensory ward environment reviews. We first introduce the framing of autism as primarily shaped by sensory and social processing differences and outline the significance of this perspective for the in-patient care of autistic young people and children. We then provide an overview of the current sensory challenges that exist in inpatient mental health facilities for autistic children and young people. Finally, we conclude with some suggestions for areas of future research around the impact of adapting ward environments, that have promise for broader and international settings.

Keywords: mental health; autistic children and young people; sensory differences; sensory environments; NHS England
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)35-53
Number of pages19
JournalChild Care in Practice
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 9 Feb 2023

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This work was supported by Economic and Social Research Council [grant number ES/W005697/1]. The original work was commissioned by the Children and Young People's Mental Health Taskforce.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2022 The Author(s). Published by Informa UK Limited, trading as Taylor & Francis Group.


  • NHS England
  • autism
  • sensory processing
  • sensory environments
  • sensory differences
  • autistic children and young people
  • Mental health


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