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Neurodiversity – a whole-child approach for youth justice

Professor Amanda Kirby summarises the evidence base around neurodiversity and sets out key lessons for those working in youth justice.

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One in three in contact with CJS neurodivergent

Last Friday (30 July 2021), Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Probation published the latest in its Academic Insights series in which leading academics summarise key criminal justice topics and draw out lessons for practitioners. This edition was written by Professor Amanda Kirby and focuses on “Neurodiversity – a whole-child approach for youth justice”

Professor Kirby starts by explaining the concept of neurodiversity which is used when someone diverges from the average way we do things in society:

“Divergence can be related to great skills in some areas or having weaker skills or challenges in others. For example, someone can be fantastic with numbers or a great sports person, but may have challenges with handwriting, reading, spelling, or being able to socialise easily in a new or unfamiliar setting. Each person’s profile will be different; this is sometimes called a ‘spiky profile’.”

Professor Kirby explains that historically conditions such as autism, ADHD, dyslexia etc. were viewed as separate conditions. However, recent research suggests that these should not be thought as binary (you have it or you don’t) but more like a continuum (similar to physical traits such as height or blood pressure) with everyone somewhere on the continuum. Many people who are further along the continuum for one of these conditions are often further along for others with overlapping conditions and challenges common.

While it is thought about one in six people in the mainstream population are neurodivergent, the proportion among people in contact with the CJS is thought to be double that. Many people in the youth justice system may have co-existing childhood traumas.

Implications for youth justice

Professor Kirby explains that communication and comprehension issues can have an impact at every point in the CJS, particular around charge and court appearances. For example, not being able to understand questions during interview can lead the child to make false admissions or ‘overly honest’ comments which may affect their defence (if not properly supported at interview, e.g. by an appropriate adult).

If a child is not able to read written communications, they might not be able to comply with them, making them vulnerable to missing court dates or appointments with professionals. There is also evidence to say that neurodivergent children may not understand the case and evidence against and so end up pleading guilty (or not guilty), without being able to fully consider the effect that this may have on their case. 

Professor Kirby says that many children either won’t know their condition or may be reluctant to disclose it because of the stigma associated with it. Many young people instinctively don’t want to be considered “disabled”. This means that children may not get the specialist advice and support they need to navigate the justice system.

The 6 Ps
The 6 Ps

Effective practice

Professor Kirby recommends that all practitioners assume that communication challenges are common and ensure both that children receive information in an accessible format and that they check to make sure that information is understood. Current best practice including a relationship-based practice framework, a whole system approach and a whole-child approach summarised in the 6Ps graphic above. Overall, the focus on protective and positive factors aligns to desistance, strengths-based, trauma-informed and Child First models.

Professor Kirby says that:

“Creating a formulation for each child means we move away from labels, to being more child-centred and towards inclusive and not exclusive approaches. It also means that appropriate referrals can be made, for example for support with ADHD.”

She emphasises the importance of neurodiversity training for all staff and regular screening to ensure that children get the support they need within a holistic approach.

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One Response

  1. As student studying guidance and counseling, I found the topic interesting to reading, which encourages new practices developing better practices for clients.

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