A new report, ‘Neurodiversity in the criminal justice system: A review of evidence’, has urged the government to develop more coordinated and effective support for people with neurodivergent conditions in the criminal justice system (CJS).

The CJS in England and Wales was examined by three criminal justice inspectorates who concluded that better assessment, treatment and support could “help break the cycle affecting too many: of crime, arrest, court, prison, probation and reoffending.”

The report states that the scale of the problem and the extent to which neurodivergent people may be over-represented in the system, are difficult to assess. However, it estimates that perhaps half of those entering prison could reasonably be expected to have some form of neurodivergent condition which impacts their ability to engage.

The inspectorates identified difficulties for those with neurodivergent conditions at every stage in the criminal justice process from arrest to release from prison. Failures to transfer or share relevant information were also found at every stage in the system.

Making reasonable adjustments for people with neurodivergent conditions 

To improve the current situation, the report recommends better neurodiversity screening of those in the CJS because “currently there are different approaches to screening – some more effective than others – and substantial gaps.” Consistent screening would improve global understanding of the scale of the problem and identify needs at a local level.

The report’s findings further suggest that police, prison and probation staff had consistently low levels of awareness, understanding and confidence in relation to neurodiversity. The report noted: “While there is no expectation that frontline staff should become ‘experts’ in neurodiversity, they do need (and want) a greater understanding of the range of conditions and how they may present.”

To combat this, the report recommends that CJS staff members make full use of their ‘soft skills’ and routinely ask questions and listen to answers. By utilising listening, empathy and compassion the inspectorates say “many immediate needs could be understood and met”.

Further still, the report recommends that a variety of environmental and sensory adjustments are made for people with neurodivergent conditions, helping to ease distress and support them to engage. These ranged from dimmed lights, eye masks and earplugs to quiet and uncluttered areas of custody and the provision of distraction packs and stress balls.

Simplifying criminal justice written jargon was also identified as an important factor, reflecting the general need to use language and communications to ensure people understand what is happening to them in the criminal justice process.

The report's authors also suggest rethinking the language used when discussing the behaviour of neurodivergent people. They were struck by how many times the word ‘difficult’ was used in evidence and suggest: “It would perhaps be more useful to reflect on how ‘difficult’ the CJS is for people with neurodivergent needs, and what could be done to change this.”

"Long overdue recognition of the hidden challenges that autistic people can face in the CJS"

In response to its findings, the National Autistic Society has said the report represents long overdue recognition of the hidden challenges that autistic people can face in the CJS, and it’s vital that the government act on its suggestions.

Clare Hughes, Criminal Justice Manager at the National Autistic Society, said: “There are around 700,000 autistic people in the UK, and the vast majority won’t come into contact with the system. But those who do can have incredibly traumatic experiences, particularly if they’re undiagnosed, misunderstood or their support needs go unrecognised and unmet.

“The inspectorates correctly set out what needs to change: there needs to be better understanding of autism and support for autistic people in every part of the system. And staff need to be supported to make this happen. At the same time, the right early support must be available to stop people getting into dangerous situations in the first place, including mental health support to help autistic people to navigate what can feel like a chaotic and overwhelming world.

“Autistic people in the justice system must not be forgotten.”