Mental Health, Autism & Learning Disabilities in the Criminal Courts

Information for magistrates, district judges and court staff

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a. Specific learning difficulties

Specific learning difficulties covers a range of impairments including dyslexia, which is the most common, dyspraxia, dyscalculia, attention deficit disorder (ADD) and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

Specific learning difficulties that are not identified or dealt with at an early age can cause significant life problems, particularly when the family is already socially disadvantaged.

Dyslexia is a specific learning difficulty which has its main impact on reading and spelling, but can also affect activities where memory for word sounds and sequences is important. Dyslexia may occur on its own or alongside other kinds of learning difficulties and is unrelated to intelligence.

People with dyslexia may have difficulties:

  • reading certain words, which can make understanding difficult
  • spelling and writing, including problems filling in forms
  • sequencing, for example, getting dates, times and events in the correct order
  • with personal organisation and time management.

With support, people with dyslexia can learn to manage their condition, but they may continue to have difficulties especially when under time pressure or stress.

People can be mildly, moderately or severely affected by dyslexia. Around 10% of the general population has dyslexia, with around 4% experiencing severe difficulties. Dyslexia is three to four times more common amongst prisoners than in the general population (Rack, 2005).

Dyslexia was recognised under the Disability Discrimination Act in 1995 and is specifically mentioned in the Equality Act 2010. This means that the educational and workplace settings have a duty to make reasonable adjustments to ensure that people affected by dyslexia are not disadvantaged compared to their peers. (Dyslexia Action, 2015)

Attention deficit disorder (ADD) and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) refers to a range of behaviours associated with poor attention span. These may include impulsiveness and hyperactivity. This can prevent children from learning and socialising, which can continue into adulthood.

Characteristics associated with ADD include:

  • being unable to pay close attention to detail
  • being unable to finish tasks
  • being unable to sustain attention in activities
  • appearing not to listen to what is said
  • not following through instructions
  • being disorganised about tasks and activities
  • being easily distracted
  • being forgetful.

Characteristics associated with impulsivity and hyperactivity include:

  • fidgeting with hands or feet
  • blurting out answers before questions have been completed
  • inability to wait in-line, queue jumping
  • not taking turns in group situations
  • interrupting when people are speaking and butting into conversations
  • talking excessively, without an appropriate response to social restraint.

About 1.7% of the UK population have ADD or ADHD. A review of international research literature showed that 15% of 10-19 year olds in custody had a diagnosis of ADHD (Fazel et al, 2008), although some youth justice staff believe figures to be higher (Talbot, 2010).

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