Teenage Crime. Making sense of it

Nathaniel Swain is the WINNER of the University of Melbourne Three Minute Thesis Competition 2016, and RUNNER-UP at the Asia Pacific Competition 2016 out of 50 Universities in the region.




Teenage criminals. Juvenile delinquents. What comes to mind when you think of the typical young offender? You’re probably imagining a male, between 15 and 18, disadvantaged, possibly maltreated, and more likely to be indigenous. But that’s only part of the story. 

What you might not have heard is that typical young male offenders have severe problems with their communication skills, 50% of these boys have what’s called “language impairment”. This means they can’t understand or express themselves with spoken language, as we would be able to.

So that’s where I come in. As a Speech-Language therapist I help all kinds of people with language impairments and other communication problems.

I was interested in these troubled boys in youth justice. These young men struggle to understand the complex language of police interviews, court appearances, or psychological intervention. The problem is their language impairments are hidden disabilities – masquerading as disinterest, or defiance.

While language impairment isn’t the only issue here, it does contribute to what’s called the school-to-prison pipeline where young people are continually excluded from schools and wind up in our prisons. This is because strong language skills enable us to learn how to read and write and to get along with others.

I wanted to see if speech-language therapy would make a difference. So I took myself to a youth justice centre, every day, for nearly a year. And at first, I was really scared…

One of the most prolific offenders I worked with was Tom. Aside from his crimes, Tom appeared to be a normal 18 year old – healthy, mentally stable, standard IQ. Some staff at the Centre said he was “just a bad kid”.

What I discovered was that Tom had a severe language impairment, that had never been diagnosed, and which meant he only understood the basics of what was said to him.

Tom and I worked together over a few months doing speech-language therapy, I aimed to explicitly teach him key vocabulary he was missing. As a result, Tom learnt words 30 new words, like optimism, react, participation, and…  justice.

Tom reported that before the project, he didn’t get most of what was going on in class, but by the end he said “Now, if I try really hard I can do something!”

By the end of my 12 months, the teachers the centre were amazed at the change in attitude and engagement of the five other participants I worked with, along with Tom.

But do you know what really hits home? Before the project, the young offenders themselves, knew nothing about their language difficulties. And without this research, the problem would have remained invisible.

Communication is a key piece of the puzzle of getting young offenders back on track. But language impairment is a hidden disability – rarely picked up, and seldom dealt with. 

My hope is that this research demonstrates that communication matters for these vulnerable young people, and that with the right support, we can make a difference.

What’s more, if we can help kids at risk of disengagement to improve their language skills, maybe we can keep them in school and out of our prisons. To me, that makes a lot of sense.

Young offenders struggle to find the words to explain themselves