Communication difficulty is the most common type of disability experienced by children and adults and can have a serious impact on a person’s life chances. International research shows that around 60% of young offenders are affected, of which 90% were previously undiagnosed, compared to around 10% in the general population. Many young offenders also have poor reading and writing skills for their age, so a 20 year old’s skills may be similar to those of a child at the end of primary school.

Literacy is rightly seen as a vehicle for educational success and securing employment, which in turn leads to a more secure and stable life. But given the nature of the challenge, it is likely to be a speech and language therapist who would transform the experiences and outcomes of the young people involved in the judicial process, and provide better value for the public purse.

That’s because the crucial role of oral language skills in the development of robust reading and writing skills is often overlooked. A person with difficulties with oral language is also likely to have poor literacy skills. We need to be able to hear the sounds in a word to match them to the letters, and we need to be able to learn new words and develop our vocabulary to recognise and understand written words. Understanding spoken sentences helps us understand written ones.

Children with poor communication skills, especially if spoken language skills and understanding are involved, can often struggle with depression, anxiety and low self-esteem, find it hard to make and keep friends, and also present with challenging behaviours. I was at a conference recently and heard of a primary school head teacher who decided to change the language used in her school from ‘challenging behaviour’ to ‘distressed behaviour’. This is an important shift in perspective, away from the effect of a person’s behaviour on others to the reasons behind it. All behaviour has a cause and all behaviour is communication, even if what it communicates is seen as ‘challenging’. It may be the person’s only way of communicating.

In Scotland, all of the young male offenders in custody, aged from 16 to 21, are housed at HMYOI Polmont. These young men come from all over Scotland and there are around 350 at any one time. Recent PhD research at Queen Margaret University showed like other studies that young male offenders in Polmont who have experienced removal from the main prison accommodation have language skills below their age.

For the first time, we asked the young men their own views of their communication. The majority saw themselves as good communicators. But if communication breaks down between prison peers, ‘saving face’ in the moment through aggressive behaviour is often viewed by the young men as more effective over verbal negotiation. It’s our job as speech and language therapists to work out where ‘challenging’ behaviour is caused by communication difficulties and to support the person experiencing these to help them adopt more helpful communication behaviours.

Screening for speech, language and communication skills, as well as literacy and numeracy, is vital. All those working with offenders in Scotland would benefit from receiving specialist training. We can learn from the Leeds Youth Offending Team, where a speech and language therapist worked on the Intensive Supervision and Surveillance Programme to provide training for staff. At the end of the project, staff members felt they had made significant gains in their knowledge and were more confident in working with young people with communication difficulties.

What is less well established is the effect such additional support or a communicative deficit could have on the young offenders’ experience of the justice system. How can young offenders tell their side of the story if they struggle to understand or tell stories anyway? How can they skilfully negotiate with lawyers if they struggle to learn new and complex legal words? How can they engage in restorative justice if they find it hard to realise the consequences of their actions on other people? And how can they benefit from talking therapy if they struggle to express their needs?

If a dedicated speech and language service is introduced in the criminal justice system at each point in the pathway from pre-offending, working with agencies such as children and families social work services and secondary education, through police and courts to community disposal, custodial sentencing prison and community reintegration, then we stand a better chance of improving the lives of the young people passing through the system. Tackling communication problems not only helps the individual but also can reduce costs at a societal level in the NHS, local authorities, the criminal justice system and the wider economy.

Dr Ann Clark

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