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Children's Commissioner calls for improvements in the treatment of young people with brain conditions

19 October 2012

Children's Commissioner calls for improvements in the treatment of young people with brain conditions

The Children's Commissioner is calling for earlier recognition of and vital improvements in the treatment and support of young people with neurological conditions following evidence that these could contribute to them committing crimes.

In a new report today, ‘Nobody made the connection: The prevalence of neurodisability in young people who offend, the Office of the Children's Commissioner (OCC) draws attention to the large numbers of young people in children's prison's in England who have neurodevelopmental difficulties, such as brain injuries, that could result in communication difficulties, cognitive delays, learning difficulties and emotional and behavioural problems.

The Children's Commissioner's report is based on a review of published evidence, conducted by the University of Birmingham and the University of Exeter, on the prevalence of neurodevelopmental disorders in young people in custody. It shows that young people in children's prisons tend to have a significant degree of neurodeveopmental disorders, and problems related to such issues, as compared to the general population. 

  • Young offenders are four times more likely to have a specific reading difficulty - Around 43 to 57% compared to 10% of the wider population
  • Many young offenders have a reading age below the age of criminal responsibility, which is 10 years in England and Wales
  • The vast majority of young offenders (60-90%) have speech and language difficulties and a quarter may have a learning disability
  • Up to three in four young people who commit crimes suffer from the effects of a traumatic brain injury. This compares to fewer than one in four of the general population
  • One in 10 may have Autistic Spectrum Disorder


Maggie Atkinson, Children's Commissioner for England, says: "This report raises serious questions about whether significant numbers of children in the youth justice system have the ability to understand the whole process from arrest through to sentencing.

"Our failure to identify neurodevelopmental disorders and put in place measures to prevent young people with such conditions from offending is a tragedy.  It affects the victims of their crimes, the children themselves, their families, the services seeking to change offenders' lives for the better, and wider society.

"Although children who have neurodevelopmental disorders and/or who have suffered brain injuries may know the difference between right and wrong, they may not understand the consequences of their actions, the processes they then go through in courts or custody, nor have the means to address their behaviour to avoid reoffending."

On Saturday 20th October, the Deputy Children's Commissioner, Sue Berelowitz, will present the findings to a key audience of forensic physicians at a conference organised by the Faculty of Forensic and Legal Medicine.

One of the research authors for the Children's Commissioner's report, Dr Nathan Hughes, Director of Education and Senior Lecturer in Social Policy and Social Work at the University of Birmingham, said:

"This report consistently demonstrates a youth justice system that continues to punish young people for the risks and vulnerabilities associated with their neurodevelopmental difficulties.

"However, it also offers grounds for optimism in the future development of services and support based on our improved understandings of neurodisability. Improvements in screening and assessment can ensure earlier identification and intervention. Training of key staff can ensure recognition of the challenges facing those with neurodisability in engaging with the youth justice system, including within the youth court. Interventions that respond appropriately to the needs of these young people can ensure more effective and cost efficient support to prevent the onset of anti-social behaviour and break a common cycle of persistent and serious offending."

The Children's Commissioner makes recommendations for the Government, local strategic partnerships, the Judiciary, clinical commissioning groups, and managers and practitioners across the youth justice system. She calls on them to make sure neurodevelopmental conditions are more rapidly identified in children and young people and that they receive better and faster treatment.



1.      Maggie Atkinson, the Children's Commissioner for England, is available for interviews

2.      The report, ‘Nobody made the connection: The prevalence of neurodisability in young people who offend, is available on the OCC website

3.      The Barrow Cadbury Trust has also published a report today focusing on the connection between acquired brain injury (ABI) and increased contact between children, young people and young adults with criminal justice processes, with a particular focus on the impact of ABI upon developmental maturity.

4.      The Office of the Children's Commissioner is a national organisation led by the Children's Commissioner for England, Dr Maggie Atkinson. The post of Children's Commissioner for England was established by the Children Act 2004. It requires us to refer to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) when planning and carrying out our work. The Children's Commissioner has a duty to promote the views and interests of all children in England, in particular those whose voices are least likely to be heard, to the people who make decisions about their lives: