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Neurodiversity in the Criminal Justice System

Posted on 5 February 2024 by Pippa McClounan


A summary of a recent research study supported by TA

Thanks to the engagement of the TS Community, studies like the following are made possible. We're keen on sharing the insights from these research endeavors to showcase the advantages of participation. Please continue reading for a synopsis of 'Neurodiversity in the Criminal Justice System'.


A lay summary of a research study conducted by User Voice

“I've only seen this probation officer twice, this new one, and he wasn't there, so they got somebody else to see me. She gave me a bit of paper, and she said, ‘You’re going to the bail hostel in [city].' Wrote down some instructions. I went over to [city]. There was a bus. They said, 'Get this bus, 19 stops.' I was struggling reading and writing. I was asking people out there. Long story short, by the time I got there I missed the bail store. I was supposed to be there at 6 o'clock. I couldn't find it. I was just walking up and down, asking people to read these instructions where you went. Couldn't find it. So, I got recalled. So, literally, it was a day out of prison.”

(Man, 59 with Autism and dyslexia)


As the health and criminal justice sectors are learning more about the experiences of the neurodivergent, User Voice wants to bring their voices front and centre, and to give them real agency. Therefore, in 2022 and 2023 we interviewed 104 and surveyed 250 neurodivergent people in prison and on probation about their experiences in the criminal justice system. To our best knowledge, this is the largest research of its kind.

What we found was that the system lacks experience and qualifications to work with neurodivergent people, and that people in the system lack knowledge and understanding of how their conditions can impact them. This leads to miscommunication, misunderstandings, frustrations, and aggression that could arguably be avoided if appropriate support and adjustments were put in place.

Our study found that the criminal justice system is still ill-prepared to support neurodivergent people. In police custody, only two people we interviewed had adjustments made around their neurodiversity, whereas in prison, 15 said adjustments had been made. Because of lack of assessments and screening in prisons, we found that only few were receiving the support they needed. Further, many told us that they were getting recalled because no adjustments in probation had been made for them. Missed appointments due to change in appointment times, locations and officers were reasons for recall.

Most people we spoke to came from lower socio-economic backgrounds, over half had experienced abuse and neglect, and one third had been in care. Further, majority had been labelled ‘bad’ and / or ‘stupid’ by their parents, carers and / or teachers, a label they had carried throughout their lives. Without understanding or support, many had started self-medicating with alcohol and drugs. Some also hesitantly told us that due to their neurodiversity, they are easily manipulated, coerced, groomed, or susceptible to peer pressure, often the reason they had gotten into trouble. These findings highlight the need for more and better preventative measures and support for the neurodivergent in the education, care, and health systems, to avoid vulnerable children and young people from ending up in the criminal justice system.

User Voice believes that lived experience has a crucial part to play in the formulation of policy and practice in every sector, whether it be criminal justice, health, or education. To benefit those who are neurodivergent, we advocate for more peer support as well employing staff with lived experience in neurodiversity. This would guarantee that services and resources are tailored to the needs of neurodivergent service users.

As prison populations grow, a commitment to more neurodiversity qualified health care staff is a must. The prison population would benefit from clinical psychologists in prison as well as better management of medication.

This report is a snapshot of people’s lived experience. To drive true reform, we hope that more resources are given to projects that share the voices and experiences of neurodivergent people. To stop neurodivergent people ending up in the criminal justice system, we need to learn from those who have been there. 

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