By: Martin Quick, Neurodiversity Coach, 3SC

13th February 2024 [Updated: 4th March 2024]


This article represents the writers’ own reflections on a December 2023 report entitled, “Not naughty, stupid, or bad. The voices of neurodiverse service users in the criminal justice system.”


This report brings together the findings from interviews with over 350 neurodiverse people from within the prison and general criminal justice system. The report is illuminating and uncomfortable at the same time!


The key headlines are quoted as follows:


  • Most of the people we interviewed have not been educated about their neurodiverse condition or how it impacts their emotions, feelings, or ways to communicate.
  • The majority had continuously been labelled ‘stupid’, ‘bad’ or ‘naughty’ when they were children and lived their lives according to this label.
  • The majority of service users we spoke to had experienced childhood adversity and/or trauma.
  • Many have been over-medicated throughout their lives, and no other support for their neurodiverse needs has been offered.
  • Many told us they are susceptible to peer pressure and/or manipulation which has got them in trouble and in contact with the criminal justice system.
  • The majority have not been offered any adjustments or support in the criminal justice system.
  • Criminal justice system staff and the NHS staff in prisons lack qualifications and information about neurodiversity and neurodivergent people and therefore are not able to provide them the support they need.


The report considers only 15% of people in the wider population to have a neurodiverse condition, compared with half of all people in the criminal justice system. There is a general acknowledgement within the CJS itself that this figure could be much higher however, owing to inconsistencies in assessments and lack of specialist CJS expertise.* https://www.uservoice.org/consultations/not-naughty-stupid-or-bad-the-voices-of-neurodiverse-service-users-in-the-criminal-justice-system/


Recently I conducted a ND Awareness training meeting with peer mentors from within Featherstone Prison. It was like watching popcorn as, one-by-one, numerous delegates of the session became animated by a realisation that I was describing some of their very own struggles. By the end of the session, I had a small queue of people wanting to shake my hand or share their personal experiences.


So why are numbers of neurodivergence so high within the CJS? The report identifies several factors that feed into this.


“Utter incomprehension; shame; an inability to read forms let alone fill them in; communication hurdles with defending lawyers; assumptions of rudeness by judges and dismissal of any suggestion that neural health may be a mitigating circumstance; inability to remember appointments; frustration; anger; confusion. Neurodiverse service users simply cannot play the game. So, they lose.”


This unfairness is often exacerbated by the poor start in life that many of these individuals have received,


“In early life, most service users we spoke to came from lower socio-economic backgrounds, over half had experienced abuse and neglect, and one third had been in care.”


As a Neurodiversity Coach, poor emotion control and RSD (Rejection Sensitivity Dysphoria) are common to many of the ND clients that I’ve worked with. In a nutshell, this is defined as a propensity to expect negative judgements from others. It is unknown whether this is a direct aspect of the condition itself. Whether it comes from the feelings of inadequacy born out of comparing themselves to their neurotypical peers? Or if it comes from experiencing the harsh, critical reactions of others towards their behaviours. Whatever the origins, this can have a very detrimental effect on their ability to form or maintain stable personal relationships, and can also create difficulties in accessing professional support too.


For example, even after leaving prison, many clients I’ve worked with report a breakdown in relationships with their GP. Lack of emotion control on their part coupled with delays in the NHS system e.g. gaining a formal ADHD diagnosis, can leave individuals at their wits’ end. The result is that all too often, the patient communicates in a manner that’s abrupt or registered as aggression. The consequence is that the individual does not access the support they need and become disenfranchised with the system as a whole. They may then fall back on drug/alcohol dependence as their coping strategy, and here again the criminal cycle begins.


It’s clear that in many ways there are a large portion of our neurodiverse community who are being let down. One positive to take from this report, however, is that neurodiversity-awareness is growing within the CJS as a whole, and with this perhaps a consideration for reforms. Evidence for this can be found in that the MOJ has been commissioning 3SC to offer a specific programme of Neurodiversity coaching to those on Probation. This service has been the result of a very successful pilot in South Wales and has grown into several initiatives now covering North Wales, the West Midlands and most recently 12 London Boroughs! As the report highlights,


“Half of the service users who took part in this report told us they had been diagnosed before they turned 17 years old. Nine had been diagnosed between ages 17 – 26, and 17 when they were older than 27 years. None of them had been told how to live with their conditions.”


The joy of our work as ND coaches comes from enabling our clients to finally become more self-aware about their thinking patterns/preferences. We often help them to recognise and play to their ND strengths/skill sets. We also help them with the important work of appropriately managing their own emotions.


Thank you for taking the time to read this article. 3SC offer a range of Neurodiversity Awareness Training sessions. We’ve also just gained accreditation as a provider of a Level 2 qualification in Neurodiversity awareness. If either of these are of interest to your organisation, please get in touch and start your journey of discovery.