How to improve autistic children’s experience of the youth justice system.

National Autistic Society Youth Justice Report

The Youth Justice Report (‘the report’) examines the experiences of autistic children and young people within the Criminal Justice System (‘CJS’) and makes recommendations towards improving that experience.


The report defines autism as follows:

“Autism is a lifelong disability which affects how people communicate and interact with the world. All autistic people have difficulties with communication and social interaction. Many autistic people have sensory sensitivities with noise, smells and bright lights, which can be painful and distressing. They can experience anxiety and extreme unease around unexpected change.”

References to ‘autistic people’ encompass those with a formal diagnosis and those with autistic traits which are yet to be diagnosed.

The report is in two parts. The first examines the pathways into the CJS and describes preventative action which might be taken. It finds that failings in the education system, the NHS and statutory services to diagnose traits or provide reasonable adjustments result in avoidable involvement with the CJS. The most common autistic behaviours of this kind include difficulty in socialisation, being easily led by others and violent or aggressive behaviour. The report recommends better access to diagnosis, early intervention and better support and understanding in schools.

It then deals in the second part with the experiences of autistic people in the CJS, issues from custody through to probation. It finds that a lack of understanding of autism within the CJS is a significant barrier to assisting autistic people, with 80% of professionals surveyed citing a lack of knowledge and understanding. To receive appropriate support and to prevent abuses, autism must be recognised at arrest, at court, in prison and on release. The report highlights that identifying behaviours is just as important for those who do not know they are autistic as those who have been diagnosed. Proper use of liaison and diversion services and the introduction of a systematic screening process are recommended.

The report found that more than 90% of autistic people within the CJS were not offered reasonable adjustments. This offends obligations established by PACE and the Equality Act 2010. This is true in extreme cases, and for those who present on the lower end of the spectrum; there seems to exist a misconception that the intelligence and verboseness of some autistic people means they do not need support.

The report consistently recommends:

  • Additional training for professionals (inside and outside of the CJS) to recognise autistic traits
  • That training or resources must be tailored to autism
  • Proper pathways for diagnosis
  • Training for professionals to enable them to make suitable reasonable adjustments.


The conclusions of this report are neither new nor surprising. It is another voice in a growing chorus highlighting the necessity for a basic understanding of autism and additional training for practitioners.  CJS practitioners reading the report will recognise that by the time autistic people are caught within the system, they have likely already been failed.

The many elements of best practice set out in the report are helpful to lawyers representing children within the justice system more broadly and can be applied in many cases whether or not the individual child or young person is autistic.  A good example of that is the proposal that practitioners should communicate simply and straightforwardly as to be better understood by the clients.

Every autistic person has different traits and triggers. This report is a helpful reminder to practitioners to focus on the communication needs of their young clients.  Practitioners should familiarise themselves with the report’s advice on the most commonly practicable and reasonable adjustments (page 62). Where significant communication needs exist practitioners should be obtaining expert reports and relying on the provisions in the criminal practice direction to apply for special measures to ensure that appropriate modifications are made to support the child in question. Please see our legal guides on Criminal Practice Directions and Effective Participation and Fitness to Plead, and our toolkit on Instructing an Expert for further guidance.

Written by Bethany Baggaley, Pupil Barrister, 25 Bedford Row