Neurodiversity Celebration Week 2024: A lived experience perspective on neurodiversity in the criminal justice system

This week (18-24 March) is Neurodiversity Celebration Week.

Neurodiversity is prevalent in the criminal justice system, yet neurodiverse people are routinely let down by services that are not responsive to their needs, leading to them becoming trapped in the cycle of crisis and crime.

Revolving Doors’ Neurodiversity Forum has been at the front and centre of the campaign to embed lived experience voices in policy and practice to improve support for neurodiverse people in the criminal justice system, contributing to the launch of the Ministry of Justice’s Neurodiversity Action Plan in 2022.

Last week, Neurodiversity Forum member David attended the Dyslexia Show, speaking on a panel where he highlighted the need for neurodiversity support and the importance of early screening in the criminal justice system and beyond. Here, he shares his thoughts:

I’m writing this the morning after the day before and I’m still wearing a smile from ear to ear. The day before (March 15, 2024) was my appearance at this year’s Dyslexia Show held at the National Exhibition Centre. I was part of a discussion panel which was chaired by Matt Hancock MP.

As well as chairing the discussion, which was held in the Keynote Theatre, Matt is the founder of Accessible Learning Foundation (ALF). ALF campaign for better identification and support for people with neurodivergent conditions, and one of their aims is to ensure there is better support for learning differences for people in prison.

Unfortunately, when, in 2010, I was diagnosed with ADHD, and with a few personality disorders to throw into the mix, I wasn’t in the right headspace to have received the information I did. In fact, at first, I was angry and felt like I had been let down, as well as being a let-down, most of my life.

Not long after receiving my diagnosis I was back in prison, again! Eighteen months, this time, for an affray. Released at the halfway point of my sentence I only lasted on the out for two weeks before being recalled to prison and served until my sentence had finished. Prison was an environment I ironically felt safe and secure in.

It wasn’t until 2015, when back in the place I knew so well, prison, I was finally ready to accept everything I knew about me. As a friend once said, “when you know how your brain works you can work with it and not against it.” And that’s exactly what I did: I began to work with my brain. The rest, as they say, is history.

In 2016, Dame Sally Coates said findings suggest 1 in 3 people in prison are neurodivergent. However, I would not be surprised if that figure is an under-estimate and neurodiversity is, in fact, more prevalent among the prison population – and that doesn’t include staff who also may be undiagnosed.

I’m the first to say that just because I was diagnosed it didn’t or doesn’t excuse my criminality, but what being diagnosed did do was to give me reasons. I knew I wasn’t a bad person, not deep down, but I didn’t know what was wrong and nor did anyone ask me, especially years ago before I was permanently excluded from school, but without being screened and receiving a diagnosis the adults didn’t know either.

In December 2023, an article, Overlooked and overwhelmed: the impact of early neurodiversity screening in prisons – written by a Neurodiversity Support Manager, based in a prison – discussed the importance of early screening.

While diagnosing neurodiversity in prison is important, early screening offers an even greater benefit. It helps prison staff understand individual needs, allowing them to quickly implement adjustments that cater to those needs. By anticipating challenges, prisons can proactively create a calmer environment for everyone. Early screening also fosters collaboration between prison teams. Together, they can develop personalised support plans for education, employment, etc., tailored to individual needs.

One of my fellow panellists at the Dyslexia Show was Sarah Templeton. Sarah is the CEO of the charity ADHD Liberty. One of their aims is to fight for the rights of all people in prison to be screened for ADHD, and to find out for themselves if their being in prison is linked with their ADHD being missed.

I stand with both ALF and ADHD Liberty and back their calls for the screening of everyone who comes into contact with the criminal justice system. However, I’m sure they will both agree that prison, although important regards screening, is far too late and it needs to happen earlier; and sooner rather than later or our prisons will continue to be full of people with undiagnosed conditions, conditions that potentially are why people are in prison in the first place.

Reasons, not excuses!