5 December 2023

Neurodiverse young adults falling through the net – “A drastic cry for help”

Young adults
A graphic of a young man in distress as his attention is pulled in various directions by people's hands

We spoke to Tracy Hammond​, Research and Innovation Director at KeyRing, and Paul*, who has a mild learning disability, about how we can divert neurodiverse young adults away from the criminal justice system.

Paul is 60 years old and resides in supported living accommodation. When he was a child, there were multiple opportunities to ensure he didn’t get involved in the criminal justice system. But these opportunities were not taken up, and he was let down repeatedly by a system that did not cater to his needs.

Paul explains: “My childhood wasn’t very good. I was taken into care at the age of two because I was being abused by my brother and his friend.

“I ended up going to a special school, but then I was being abused again. So, I was put into a care home. I was 12 when I did my first offence and I ended up going to another place, testing centre, then back into the court, then back into a children’s home.”

Paul attended a special educational needs school, so his learning disability was formally recognised. However, it’s painfully clear that he didn’t get the right support from statutory services and that his early years were fraught with unpredictability, abuse, trauma, and neglect.

Tracey adds: “Paul’s 60 now, and he’s been through the justice system for most of his life. But the opportunity was there when he received his diagnosis as a child to get him the right support.

“If that had happened, he wouldn’t have ended up trapped in the system.”

At 16, Paul was convicted of arson. He spent a year at HM Prison Risley before successfully appealing his case. It was a harrowing experience for Paul because no attention was given to his additional needs. He didn’t even understand at first that he had received a prison sentence.

Paul adds: “I’d never been in prison. I was put into this cell, and I didn’t know where we were. He [prison officer] took the clothes off me, and I got quite abusive to them because I had obviously been abused myself. I just sat there thinking am I allowed to go to sleep? I were terrified.”

“From there I was put onto the hospital wing. I thought we’re going to a hospital somewhere. Anyway, they took me onto this wing, and it was just convicted murders. If you got done for murder, you went to the hospital wing. I was just gone 16.”

“They did have a wing there for young people, but I think it was the nature of the sentence and they must have thought I was suicidal. I saw that’s why they put me in there. I were a mess.”

On leaving prison, he moved regularly between secure units before returning to an abusive home at the age of 19. For a while he had some social care support, but Paul found it challenging to live with his alcoholic father.

Paul ended up back in contact with the justice system and at 21 he received a probation order for burglary and theft. While still on probation, he was arrested for a burglary he still maintains he didn’t do. However, he was too afraid to disclose the real offenders, so he served two and a half years in prison and left just before his 25th birthday. He then had a string of convictions before committing a serious offence at age 26 which saw him sentenced to 12 years in a secure hospital.

Paul believes that neurodivergent young adults can be diverted from the justice system, if the appropriate support networks are in place.

“If I’d had the support, and if I’d had the right people looking after me, I wouldn’t have got convicted. I would have had someone to talk to, refer me for mental health support, and I wouldn’t have had to make such a drastic cry for help.”

Since Paul’s involvement in the justice system, there have been vast advances in our understanding of neurodiversity. Organisations like KeyRing and the National Autistic Society (NAS) have been building the evidence base in this field for many years, and the 2021 Criminal Justice Joint Inspectorate Report ‘Neurodiversity in the Criminal Justice System’ was a landmark publication.

Furthermore, both KeyRing and NAS have been funded by the Barrow Cadbury Trust to carry out research into the specific needs of neurodivergent young adults and how to effectively support them.

Despite this, Tracy sees many young neurodiverse adults ending up in the criminal justice system rather than being diverted into appropriate support networks.

“I started to think about what happened to Paul and asked myself if this could still happen today? I’m absolutely certain it could. I think children still do very poorly in care. The care system almost sets children up to go to prison.

“The other thing is that children who are neurodivergent often just can’t face school. School is set up for neurotypical people. It’s very busy. There’s everything from sensory overload to the social interaction all the time, and the need to perform in this environment is difficult for neurodiverse people.

“And of course, if they’re not going to school, you’ve then got two problems. One is that signs of abuse are not going to be picked up, and the other is the potential for young people to find their way into criminal activities – and this isn’t going to be picked up either. A particular worry is that they could be exploited and targeted for county lines drug supply rings.”

And when young neurodiverse people transition into the adult justice system, the few support structures they have – and desperately need – fall away. Tracy explains:

“Suddenly, they must take responsibility for things like making their own appointments. They’re becoming an adult, yes, but they are still the same person with potentially unrecognised neurodivergent conditions that make these things inherently difficult.

“If your additional needs affect your ability to remember appointments, for example, you’re now being punished for missing meetings rather than supported to turn up for things. That’s just plain unhelpful, and it creates the wrong kind of atmosphere to look at any other reasons behind offending behaviour.”

KeyRing believe that all statutory services working with neurodivergent young adults must consider their whole experience – and the consequences that might arise if appropriate support is not provided.

“It’s not enough to say yes, they can make a friend, therefore they don’t need support with social interaction. Can they form a friendship that is healthy and reciprocal rather than one which is manipulative and will lead them into trouble?

“I’ve worked with people who take one look at a police uniform, and you know, colloquially speaking, they kick off. They weren’t born with that extremity of reaction.

“In order to understand these behaviours and somebody’s entire range of needs, we need access to good diagnostic services.

“One of the things I have learnt talking to neurodivergent people is that, if they are able to see themselves in the diagnosis that they receive, they’re much more likely to be able to deal with the way their own brain works and to move on with their lives.”

*Paul is a pseudonym used to protect the individual’s identity