Lost for words

The importance of recognising young people with speech, language and communication needs is increasingly being accepted and understood by the Youth Justice workforce. Anita Kerwin-Nye explains the benefits for all of raising awareness of this hidden disability

A court appearance can be a complex and bewildering experience for anyone. But for a young person with speech, language and communication needs (SLCN) the process can be a minefield of jargon, misunderstanding and confusion. Research shows that over 60% of young people in the youth justice system have SLCN (Bryan, K 2008). This means they have difficulty communicating with others, a skill most of us take for granted; being able to say what you want and to understand what others are saying are the most important skills we need in life. However, young people with SLCN find it hard to articulate what they want to say, might have difficulty understanding what is being said to them or simply don’t understand social rules such as how to take turns in a conversation or to respond to what the other person has just said. Crucially, they may not be able to communicate effectively at a police interview or a court appearance, which could have profound implications. Indeed as the The Audit Commission Report, A Review of the Reformed Youth Justice, states “If a young person is inarticulate, inhibited or lacks understanding...this may lead to misunderstandings and even the passing of an inappropriate sentence.”


For many young people the justice system can feel like something that happens to them rather than something they have a stake in. More effective communication can help make the process clearer for young people and help to ensure that they more fully take part in the process, ultimately ensuring that justice is better served.  Very often SLCN has not been picked up, either by themselves, their family or the professionals around them. SLCN is often referred to as ‘hidden’; because many characteristics of the condition can be interpreted as obstructive, ‘difficult’ or simply ‘teenage’ behaviour. So how does one differentiate between the typical teenager and a young person with speech, language and communication needs?

A young person with SLCN may have immature social skills, behave or sound like a younger child, struggle to listen, miss what’s being said to them or talk in monosyllables or short sentences. A young person’s SLCN may also be part of another condition such as dyslexia, so they may have difficulty understanding reading and writing. They may have learning disabilities or autism of which one characteristic can be to interpret phrases very literally. For example ‘case’ from ‘case will be heard’ could be understood as a suitcase and ‘heard’ as in literally hearing something. In one scenario, a young person agreed that he acted ‘recklessly’ when he thought it meant ‘accidentally’, and this subsequently became detrimental to his case.

With over 1 in 3 of offenders with speaking and listening skills below level 1 of the National Curriculum, the expected level for a 5 year old ( Davies et al.,(2004)), it is no wonder that young people struggle with language like remorse, conviction, breach, comply and circumstances.
In many cases, young people may not have previously been identified as having communication difficulties until they entered the youth justice system. Absence from school, chaotic and dysfunctional lives and staff and parents who lack information and knowledge means that problems often remain unidentified until a child’s behaviour leads them to the youth justice system. SLCN is not the cause of the offending behaviour, nor does it always first show itself in the youth justice system - but this is where the impact can be greatest. The young person who never attends appointments may be described as disengaged but could have difficulties understanding the concept of time, poor organisational skills or difficulty understanding the consequences of actions. The child who gives minimal responses may come across as simply rude but, in truth, struggles to express language, understand the question, organise ideas or formulate a sentence. And the youngster who refuses to fill in forms could be labelled as simply awkward but actually has literacy difficulties or doesn’t understand the content.

Studies show that for those children identified with behavioural, social and emotional difficulties (BESD) between 55% and 100% also have some form of SLCN (The Cost to the Nation of Children’s Poor Communication ICAN 2006). It is often the outward behaviours that are seen and reacted to when for many young people there is an underlying SLCN contributing to their actions.Importantly, young people can become experts at masking their difficulties. So not wanting to appear stupid they might avoid saying they don’t understand, instead hiding their difficulties behind a shrug, a bowed head and body language that appears obstructive and difficult. At school, a child may be identified as ‘lazy’, ‘tired’ or ‘badly behaved’ often exacerbated by poor attendance. Very often a young person may not even be aware that there is a problem. Crucially, sometimes, nor are the adults around them.

A recent Centre for Social Justice report (Rules of Engagement, Centre for Social Justice 2012) calls for the urgent need for more youth specialised training for court practitioners, including how to manage learning and communication difficulties. Whilst there is clearly much more awareness of the prevalence of SLCN it is clear that much more can be done to inform and advise the youth justice workforce about how to recognise communication needs and how to change their interactions accordingly. Ultimately, this will make the process easier for everyone.

For more information about the Youth Justice Programme with The Communication Trust visit www.sentencetrouble.info or call Dave Mahon on 020 7843 2548.

The Communication Trust is a coalition of nearly 50 leading voluntary sector organisations campaigning on behalf of children with speech, language and communication needs. It raises awareness, influences policy and promotes best practice among the children’s workforce and commissions work from its members.


Anita Kerwin-Nye is the Director of The Communication Trust.

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