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The experience of neurodivergent children in custody
Anne-Marie Day gives neurodivergent children a voice to talk about their experiences in the youth justice system.

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Disabling and criminalising systems?

New research by Anne-Marie Day (@Anne_MarieDay) seeks to understand the experiences and challenges facing incarcerated, neurodivergent children in the education and youth justice systems in England. It is estimated that one in three people in contact with the criminal justice system may be neurodivergent and this rate is even higher for children, an in particular for children in custody. Ms Day points out that although this is an issue which is attracting more attention from researchers and practitioners alike, the discussions are missing the voices of the children themselves. She seeks to address this gap by research which involved interviews with 19 children either in custody or recently released.

Ms Day starts by summarising the research on how neurodivergent people are disadvantaged at every point in the criminal justice system. These include struggling to comprehend many of the core processes such as being booked into a police station or how a court hearing works. Neurodivergent people may become frustrated by not understanding what is happening and this behaviour can be interpreted as non-compliance with the result that they are less likely to be diverted from the system and more likely to be prosecuted.

Neurodivergent people may also be more likely to plead guilty inappropriately and to fail to comply with community sentences because they don’t understand the requirements.

There are similar challenges within the custodial environment although most of the research relates to adults who often find it difficult to understand prison rules and behavioural expectations, meaning that
they often broke the rules and were punished with isolation and reduced privileges. For those with literacy and numeracy difficulties, this often meant that they could not fill out prison forms, the main system by which to arrange family visits, gym sessions, and other sources of crucial support. (

Offending behaviour programmes in custody are often based on cognitive behavioural techniques that have been found inappropriate for neurodivergent people. The lack of alternative, more suitable programmes often means that people can’t fulfil their sentence plans, jeopardising Home Detention Curfews or release on parole.

Key themes

A number of themes emerged during the interviews with the children  including labelling and disabling; isolation and segregation; and surviving custody. Several of the children described their trajectory through the education and youth justice systems, often describing being labelled as disruptive or a problem, very early on (in school years 4-6).

Typically children’s education was disrupted with many changes in schools and frequent periods of not having any education. The research found that the periods of instability, disengagement and disruption tended to exacerbate challenging behaviours, placing the children in a vicious cycle of labelling and disabling. This continued when children were placed in a specialist provision, such as a Pupil Referral Unit.

Children spoke of struggling to cope, often because of their neurodivergent conditions, and resorting to being naughty so that they wouldn’t have to cope with a new and anxiety-provoking situation.

“I just didn’t like it, so I just had to be naughty there.”

Children repeatedly talked about how all their conversations with the professional who were supposed to support them were about their behaviour, rather than about them as people, their hopes and problems.

“Yeah, they were talking about my behaviour, they weren’t talking about what was going on with me. Like mentally, they never used to sit down and talk to me, no nothing, not really, none of the officers would sit down and ask me what were going on.”

As they passed through the education and youth justice systems, children were continually forced into isolation, from time out in primary schools to segregation in youth custody, following the depressingly familiar school exclusion to prison pipeline. This process was exacerbated by having les contact with family and friends, especially once children were in custody. This became such a frequent experience for some children, that they became scared, keeping to their cell and avoiding interactions with others.


Ms Day concludes that the way in which the special education system combines with the focus on risk in the justice system means that neurodivergent children are disproportionately labelled and disabled by the very systems that are supposed to help them.
She advocates for the proper implementation of the Child First approach (the official YJB policy) and much more screening and support for children with neurodivergent needs.


Thanks to John Hain for kind permission to use the header image in this post which was previously published on Pixabay.

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