Autism and ADHD: the youth justice system is harming neurodivergent children
Neurodivergent children are disproportionately represented in the youth justice system. This includes those with conditions including autism spectrum disorder (ASD), attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and speech, language, and communication needs.
Research across a range of countries suggests that 15% of young people in custody are autistic, as opposed to between 0.6% and 1.2% in the general population. This research found that between 60% and 90% of young people in custody met the diagnostic criteria for communication disorders.
What’s more, many children in the youth justice system will not have been assessed and diagnosed or may not meet the criteria for a clinical diagnosis.
A stressful environment
As part of my research, I carried out interviews with 19 neurodivergent children who were or had recently been in a young offenders’ institution in England. The stressful, loud, aggressive, chaotic, and harmful environment of custody triggered neurodivergent children. It leads to behavior that could result in them being labeled as problematic by staff. My research suggests that the youth justice system, and specifically custody, is deeply harmful to neurodivergent children.
A recent National Autistic Society report on the experiences of autistic teenagers in the youth justice system in England has concluded that system-wide change is needed to address how autistic young people enter and are treated in the criminal justice system.
The report found that at police stations, 46% of families said they were not provided with the appropriate adult they were entitled to advise and advocate for them as needed. They thought the communication style during police interviews was challenging, often because clear language was not used, and extra time was not given to process information.
Families also reported that in court, they often did not receive adjustments like being given extra time to process information. Research suggests that autistic young people may have a reduced understanding of court processes, why they are in court, or the implications of legal decisions.
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