Department of Human Services

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Key Messages

Prevalence of Needs

Visual motor integration

All young people scored outside of the average range for at least one aspect of visual motor integration (VMI).

More than half scored in the ‘severe range of impairment’ for at least one aspect.


Functional implications of poor visual motor skills can include difficulty with handwriting, reading, drawing, copying from the board at school and hand-eye coordination.

Secondary challenges associated with VMI can include disengagement and withdrawal from education services, impact on daily living skills and decreased vocational opportunities. These results show that traditional education methods are unlikely to be successful in improving the reading and writing skills of young people within AYTC without first addressing an individual’s underlying visual-motor deficits.

Language disorder

Nine out of 10 young people were found to be at risk for language disorder.


Language disorder may impact on engagement and effectiveness of criminogenic, mental health, educational, and therapeutic interventions, as well as day to day functioning (e.g. following instructions, having conversations, positive social interactions) because the young person may have difficulty understanding and responding to spoken and written information.

Language disorder may impact on social interactions because young people may not have the language skills to keep up with a conversation, understand the precise meaning of what is said or express themselves accurately. This may impact on the peer groups and activities they choose to engage with.

Other young people with language disorder might appear able to participate in conversation despite underlying gaps in their capacity to understand and express oral language. They may be skilled at masking their communication deficits leading to others thinking they are more capable at understanding and participating than they actually are.

Language disorder may impact on emotional and behavioural regulation because young people may not have the emotional vocabulary to express themselves and respond in appropriate ways.

Intellectual functioning

Nine out of 10 young people scored below average for intellectual functioning.


Below-average intellectual functioning may impact on a multitude of life domains, including personal wellbeing, social functioning and educational achievement. An individual’s capacity to learn new things is likely to be compromised both in academic terms, in the acquisition of daily life skills, and in the development of personal skills such as self-management and emotional regulation.

Depending on the severity of the difficulties with intellectual functioning, memory deficits may be evident, in addition to difficulties with abstract thinking (including being unable to consider themselves an abstract figure).

These individuals may feel excluded from the mainstream education system, which may impact on their self-concept and then render them vulnerable to becoming involved with negative influences and offending behaviour. Due to their offending behaviour, they may be drawn into a criminal justice system which they have difficulty navigating. This may impact on their engagement with service providers.

Moreover, an individual’s capacity to develop insight into their needs and behaviour, in particular problem behaviour such as offending, is also likely to be restricted. Depending on their developmental stage, impacts on their level of empathy may be evident. These factors consequently limit capacity to change behaviour independently, and highlight the need for systemic interventions to alter behavioural patterns.

This indicates that all mainstream interventions need to be modified to be appropriately responsive for young people with lower than average intellectual functioning.

Risk of reoffending

Nine out of 10 young people were found to be at moderate to high risk of reoffending.


The Risk Principle (well-established in the evidence-based applied criminology field internationally), holds that the intensity of interventions provided to a young person should match their individual risk of reoffending.

Therefore, with 90% of young people found to be at moderate and higher levels of risk, this highlights the significant need for adequate resourcing of more intensive interventions to better respond to needs amongst the custodial population.

Attention, concentration and working memory

More than eight out of 10 young people were identified as having difficulties with attention/concentration and working memory.


Deficits in attention and working memory can significantly impact a young person’s daily functioning, including with activities such as time management, appointment attendance, and navigating public transport systems.

Deficits with attention and concentration may impact on educational engagement and attainment due to an inability to store and retain information. This may make the individual susceptible to distraction or at a risk of negatively influencing the engagement of peers.

Deficits in working memory can further impact a young person’s capacity to sustain attention, due to difficulty retaining and manipulating information. Working memory deficits may also impact a young person’s ability to multi-task, organize themselves, problem-solve, make decisions and retain information critical for effective communication with others.

Controlling impulses

Almost eight out of 10 young people indicated significant difficulties with controlling impulses.


Difficulties controlling impulses may impact on a young person’s capacity to control feelings of frustration and anger. This may manifest in angry outbursts, non-compliance, argumentativeness, poor frustration tolerance and unpredictable behaviour. These challenges may significantly impact a young person’s daily functioning including their ability to meet institutional expectations with regard to their conduct and behaviour.

Executive functioning and behaviour

More than three quarters of young people indicated challenges with executive functioning and behaviour.


Executive functioning deficits can lead to challenges with inattention, distractibility, difficulty initiating and sustaining engagement, poor self-monitoring, difficulty making decisions, poor reasoning skills, poor planning and organization skills, and difficulty adapting skills across different environments. All of these things can significantly impact a young person’s daily functioning.

Sensory needs

One in three young people had sensory needs significantly different to the general population (that is, much more or much less than most people in at least one category).


Impacts of sensory processing challenges can be complex, varied and can occasionally seem contradictory. For this reason, they should never be generalised across groups or populations. On an individual basis however, functional impacts can include (but are not limited to) difficulty sitting still, being easily distracted, poor attention/concentration, clumsiness, difficulty with handwriting and hyper- and/or hypo-sensitivity to sensory stimuli.

Subsequent challenges associated with sensory processing can include emotional lability, socially inappropriate behaviours, and unpredictable and potentially violent behaviours that may appear disproportionate to observers. Long-term impacts of sensory-related impacts can include disengagement and withdrawal from education services and decreased vocational opportunities.

Conduct disorder and other disorders

Between 1 to 2 thirds of young people scored in the moderate to severe range for Conduct Disorder, Academic Problems, Substance Abuse, Anger/Violence Proneness and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.


The endorsement of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder symptoms suggests that a clinically significant proportion of resident participants experienced a level of distress and chronic physiological arousal. Local and international research in this area has shown that young people engaged with criminal justice systems are likely to have experienced a number of adverse experiences while growing up. It is possible that the high level of distress and physiological arousal identified in this population has occurred in response to adverse events that occurred during key developmental periods. It is therefore important to identify and understand a young person’s triggers and trauma-related behaviour in order to provide appropriate responses to these behaviours.

Although each young person’s experience is unique, a range of literature indicates that these symptoms and behaviours can include poor emotional regulation, including Anger/Violence Proneness towards others. This can be posited as a feature of the elevated sympathetic nervous system, whereby aggression may be a maladaptive response to perceived threat, colloquially known as “fight or flight”. It may also be a learned response (through the process of modelling) in which the use of violence to solve problems and/or interpersonal conflict is seen as being preferential or more easily accessible than more adaptive skills.

Conduct Disorder, a diagnostic classification indicating a cluster of rule-breaking, dishonest and aggressive behaviours, is likely to be highly relevant to a population of young people in a custodial environment. Whilst the offending histories and presentation of each resident will vary, their involvement in the Youth Justice system has arisen from some form of illegal behaviour. Further to this, resident histories may further include aggression and other behaviours that are indicative of maladaptive problem-solving mechanisms and/or means to solve interpersonal conflict; enable avoidance of consequences; or the perpetuation of their preferred lifestyles.

Substance Abuse can be meaningfully interpreted for many young people as a means of coping with adverse life events and the ensuing negative emotional arousal associated with those events (sometimes referred to as “self-medication”). It may also fit within the bounds of ‘normal’ adolescent behaviours. However, some young people are introduced to substance use at an earlier age than is typical for ‘experimentation’ and this can lead to dependency. Offending behaviour may serve to fund substance use and substance use may also be normalised for this population.

Academic problems may occur as a byproduct of the above-mentioned factors, such that an individual who is experiencing the effects of trauma, and associated problems with behaviour in the classroom, is more likely to have difficulties sustaining engagement in mainstream education, and to experience exclusion from mainstream educational environments.

New areas of needs identified

More than half the young people had new areas of needs identified through the screening project.


The results of the screening project show the prevalence of disability-related needs in the AYTC population is much higher than existing Youth Justice data and processes are presently capable of showing. This highlights that current Youth Justice policies, strategies and practices may need to be reviewed in light of this new evidence, in order to identify needs and respond effectively.

In regular interactions, this means that young people and staff may be unaware of the challenges that exist, and therefore may not be responsive to these hidden needs during existing practice. Staff may also be unaware of the influences that these needs have on day to day behaviour and functioning within a custodial environment.

Intervention Needs

NDIS access requests

An NDIS Access Request was recommended for almost one quarter of the young people involved in the screening project.


NDIS access requests take considerable time and resource to complete. This has impacts on the capacity of YJAIS resources regarding the provision of evidence (comprehensive assessment and written reports) to support the access request, or to link young people with other services who may be able to do so. It also has resourcing implications for case managers who complete the access request documentation and process.

Needs that warranted further involvement from the YJAIS team

More than half the young people had needs that warranted further involvement from the YJAIS team.


Consideration of the professional resourcing needed to be able to respond to the assessment and intervention needs of potentially half the population of young people in custody at any one time, in a timely responsive way, is required. This project does not include young people engaged in Youth Justice services in the community, who would, on the basis of this cohort evidence, also be reasonably expected to have similar levels of disability-related needs.

Recommended for external referral to services other than NDIS

More than one third of the young people involved, were recommended for external referral to services other than NDIS (for example, CAMHS, Paediatrician, Department for Education).


This highlights the importance of awareness of available services, strong working relationships between stakeholders, and a clear delineation of roles across services, in order to meet the needs of young people. This also highlights an important role for YJAIS in informing case planning through the information gained from specialist assessment and intervention with young people.

Broad Implications

The results and key findings from the screening project have many significant implications for young people, Youth Justice staff and the wider Youth Justice Services Division.

For young people, the complexity of needs identified across multiple functional domains may impact on their daily lives in many ways, thus creating barriers to positive engagement in vocational and educational pursuits; prosocial peer interactions, connections and leisure activities; and accessibility to, engagement in, and benefit gained from therapeutic interventions. The pathways from unmet needs to offending are well-established.

For Youth Justice staff, the complexity of need is likely to influence how young people interact with and respond to staff. The effectiveness of staff approaches could be enhanced by greater awareness of and responsiveness to the identified needs of the young people. Consideration needs to be given to the training and supervision that Youth Justice staff receive in order to be able to respond appropriately to the complexity of need of young people.

For the Youth Justice Division, the complexity and prevalence of need highlights the importance of embedding a response to disability-related needs within policies and procedures as part of the Youth Justice Strategy, including considerations of human resource investment to respond to these needs.

Consideration of the nights spent in custody for young people who participated in this screening project revealed some unexpected and important information. This population sample was a point-in-time snapshot of custodial residents, and it was discovered that many young people (just under half of the sample population) had spent over a year in custody (in increments, not as one continuous period) over the course of their involvement with Youth Justice to date. A caveat for these analyses is that participants were of varying age, so a 17 year old would have had more time/opportunity to spend nights in custody compared to a 12 year old. However, this finding presents a counterpoint to the common narrative that young people are not in custody for long enough for Youth Justice to effectively intervene with them, and highlights the importance of throughcare and relational consistency, as well as the challenges and inefficiencies associated with brief court mandate-driven episodes of care.

This project has provided some evidence that neurodevelopmental disability is the norm rather than the exception for young people in custody, and as such ‘business as usual’ practice (including operational management and case management) should more greatly reflect this awareness. Looking at young people in custody through these lenses affirms that neurodevelopmental impairment, which can be influenced by a range of factors including adverse developmental experiences, significantly influences young people’s functioning and behaviour and has for too long been the unseen elephant in the room.

There was insufficient statistical power given the small sample size considered in this project to conclusively determine whether greater disability-related needs were significantly correlated with higher levels of actuarially defined criminogenic risk. However, high levels of disability-related need were identified alongside high levels of criminogenic risk and need. This suggests that any system response to the custodial population must have a dual cognisance of both areas of need and their interrelationship.

Page last updated : 01 May 2022

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