the youth justice system harms neurodivergent children

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<p>Neurodivergent children are disproportionately represented in the juvenile justice system in England.  This includes people with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD), Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), and speech, language and communication disorders.</p>
<p>Research from various countries suggests that 15% of young prisoners have autism, compared to 0.6% to 1.2% in the general population.  This research found that between 60% and 90% of youth in custody met diagnostic criteria for communication disorders.</p>
<p>Additionally, many children in the youth justice system will not have been assessed and diagnosed, or may not meet the criteria for a clinical diagnosis.</p>
<h2>A stressful environment</h2>
<p>As part of my research, I conducted interviews with 19 neurodivergent children who were or had recently been in a young offender institution in England.  The stressful, noisy, aggressive, chaotic and harmful environment of daycare has triggered neurodivergent children.  This leads to behaviors that could cause them to be labeled problematic by staff.  My research suggests that the youth justice system, and specifically custody, is profoundly harmful to neurodivergent children.</p>
<p>A recent report by the National Autistic Society on the experiences of autistic adolescents in the juvenile justice system in England concluded that system-wide change is needed to address how young people with autism enter and are treated in the criminal justice system.</p>
<p>The report found that in police stations, 46% of families said they did not receive the appropriate adult they were entitled to to advise and defend them when needed.  They thought the communication style during the interview with the police was difficult, often because plain language was not used and there was no extra time to process the information.</p>
<p>Families also reported that in court they often did not receive adjustments, such as additional time to process the information.  Research suggests young people with autism may have a reduced understanding of court processes, why they are in court, or the implications of court decisions.</p>
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Some children may be sentenced to community sentences, which involves being supervised in the community by a member of the youth justice team for a period of time. They are often required to participate in cognitive-behavioural techniques (CBT) therapy to address “criminal behavior.”

Inappropriate methods

This approach may well be inappropriate for many neurodivergent children. CBT requires these children to understand what their thoughts and feelings were before they became involved in a behavior, and to be able to discuss these feelings with a youth justice worker. It relies on a level of language proficiency to identify how thoughts and feelings may have contributed to an act. This may not be possible for a neurodivergent child.

For some children, their interaction with the youth justice system leads to imprisonment. My research and that of others suggests that busy and noisy buildings, cell sharing, and changes in daily routines will be particularly distressing and harmful for neurodiverse child prisoners.

Young neurodivergents may also be more susceptible to being restrained, isolated and separated, such as being left alone in their cells. I have found this to have a negative impact on the mental health of some children, leading to incidents of self-harm.

The isolation, exclusion and stigmatization of neurodivergent children permeates the youth justice system. A 2019 General Comment from the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child stated that neurodivergent children “should not be in the juvenile justice system at all.”

Understanding Triggers

Frontline staff, including police, corrections officers, social workers, and youth justice workers, lack knowledge about how to identify and work effectively with neurodivergent children. Staff should be trained on how to communicate appropriately with neurodivergent children. This includes understanding how a child’s environment can be stressful and trigger challenging behaviors, and how to make sure they work with them and are valued as an individual.

For example, in my research, I found that children with ADHD were often punished in detention for “disruptive behavior.” The disruptive behavior they displayed, however, was in many cases typical behavior of people with ADHD when in a stressful environment such as police custody. They repeatedly pressed their cell door bell, got into verbal altercations with other children or staff, or refused to return to their cell when asked to do so.

There is also currently insufficient screening of children for neurodivergent diseases. Having systematic screening as part of their entry into the youth justice system would help ensure that children are identified early and changes can be made to ensure their needs are met. As it stands, the youth justice system is failing neurodivergent children so badly.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Anne-Marie Day does not work for, consult, own stock or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond her appointment academic.