YJLC Legal Update: The relationship between Neurodiversity and Repeat Offending

This policy briefing by Revolving Doors examines the link between neurodiversity and the ‘revolving door’ of crisis and crime. The paper concludes that neurodivergence is a form of multiple disadvantage - a factor which exacerbates the likelihood of reoffending such as poverty, homelessness or problematic substance abuse - and should be recognised as such.

Neurodiversity is an issue that youth justice practitioners must be especially live to, given the fact that children might be less likely to have their neurodiversity diagnosed and recognised and their personal coping strategies could also be underdeveloped.


Neurodiversity refers to differences in the way that people’s brains work and interpret information. A ‘neurodivergent’ person learns and processes information differently to the way a ‘neurotypical’ person does. Neurodivergent conditions include, among others, learning difficulties, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), autism spectrum disorder (ASD), developmental language disorder, tic disorders including Tourette’s syndrome, and cognitive impairments due to acquired brain injury.

Revolving Doors developed the briefing in conjunction with their Neurodiversity Forum, which consists of six people who identify as neurodivergent and have recent, repeated contact with the criminal justice system driven by multiple disadvantage.

The briefing sets out four key conclusions on the issue:

1. Neurodiversity is misunderstood and misinterpreted. The paper stresses in particular that behaviour of neurodivergent people that occurs as a result of their condition is not being recognised as such or is being misinterpreted, which could make them more likely to be arrested, and make diversion away from custody or the criminal justice system less likely.

2. Neurodiversity often intersects with problematic substance use. Neurodivergent people are likely to self-medicate with drugs and alcohol use and/or use them to ‘mask’ their behaviour when amongst neurotypical people. With the established link between problematic drug and alcohol use, this compounds to indicate that a neurodivergent person is more likely to enter the criminal justice system.

3. Neurodivergent people struggle to navigate the criminal justice system. This occurs both on arrest and throughout the courts process and continues into the prison system.

4. A trauma-informed approach will be beneficial to neurodivergent people. The paper stresses that more research is needed to explore the link, if any, between trauma and neurodiversity. However, an approach which focuses on providing a healing and person-centred environment, rather than an individual’s behaviour and issues, will benefit neurodivergent people in a similar way to those who have suffered trauma.

Revolving Doors made a number of recommendations:

- Training must be improved to support frontline workers to respond most effectively to neurodiverse people's needs

- Sentencers must receive neurodiversity awareness training and ensure that sentencing decisions take neurodivergence into account

- Timely, thorough pre-sentence reports should be mandatory for all people who are on the cusp of either a custodial or community sentence

- Probation (including Youth Justice) practitioners should be supported to ask appropriate and sensitive questions about neurodiverse conditions, and should endeavour to work with people with lived experience to do so

- For services to be trauma-informed, they must also be neurodiversity-informed

- Treatment and services relating to drugs and alcohol and mental health must be neurodiversity-informed and not work in siloes or consider neurodiversity to be a ‘separate issue’, i.e. services must be co-commissioned and co-delivered

- Services should work with people with lived experience to develop strategies for addressing any inequalities

- Neurodiversity should be considered as core to multiple disadvantage, rather than as a peripheral issue

- More data across the system needs to be collected and analysed on the co-occurrence of neurodiversity and other forms of multiple disadvantage such as problematic substance use and poor mental health


It will have been clear to practitioners that the presence of neurodiversity exacerbates the likelihood that an individual will come into repeated contact with the criminal justice system. This is a helpful briefing which demonstrates the ways in which the system does not recognise neurodiversity and in some cases actively works against those with neurodivergent conditions.

The briefing can therefore be used by practitioners as one of their tools in cases where they are representing an individual with a neurodiversity and, where appropriate, referred to in representations.

The recommendations, too, should be looked at closely by those in the sector as measures which would help address the inherent disadvantage faced by neurodivergent people.

Written by Robbie Eyles, Solicitor, Just For Kids Law