More support needed for neurodiverse young people in education and youth offending, research finds
Young people with learning or thinking differences are being "criminalised" by the education system and youth offending services because of procedures that isolate and harm them, new research by Keele University suggests.
Nearly 1.4 million schoolchildren in England and Wales were identified as having special educational needs in 2020, with neurodivergent children currently over-represented in court and custodial settings.
The research found an "urgent need" for all frontline professionals working with children to receive training to raise awareness of neurodivergence. The findings suggest that early screening for potential signs of neurodivergence should become compulsory when a child is at risk of exclusion from school or demonstrates behaviour challenges, and screening should be mandatory during the assessment of every young person who enters the youth justice system.
Discussing her findings in the Forensic Science International journal, lead author Dr Anne-Marie Day said neurodivergent children face a number of challenges as they navigate their way through the education and youth justice systems. The study involved interviewing 19 young people, aged between 15 and 18, who were either in custody or had been recently released for offences including burglary, robbery and manslaughter.
Dr Day said: "The research findings suggest that both the education and youth justice systems in England and Wales are disabling and criminalising through processes that, often unintentionally, label, stigmatise, isolate, neglect and harm neurodivergent children. Several of the children talked about their journey through the education and youth justice systems, often describing being labelled as disruptive or a problem, as early as in Year Four.
"Children spoke of struggling to cope, often because of their neurodivergent conditions. They repeatedly talked about how all their conversations with professionals who were supposed to support them were about their behaviour, rather than about them as people, their hopes and problems."
Despite a number of studies looking at why the number of neurodivergent children in custody is disproportionate, there has been very little work which draws attention to the ways in which neurodivergent children interact with the education and criminal justice systems.
Dr Day added: "The way in which the 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.
"The isolation, exclusion, and stigmatisation of neurodivergent children permeates both the education and youth justice systems. Poor staff training, limited knowledge, and insufficient assessment and screening tools have contributed to a lack of support and identification of neurodivergent children in both the education and criminal justice systems internationally.
"The research suggests there needs to be a move towards a neurodiversity and child first approach, where a child is viewed firstly as an individual with their own specific strengths and needs."
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