Teenage crime and language disorder

Research into teenage crime uncovers the invisible disorder holding many offenders back

This is an edited version of Nathaniel Swain’s winning 3 Minute Thesis speech.

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 per cent of these boys have what is called “language disorder”. This means they can’t understand or express themselves with spoken language, as we would be able to.

Nathaniel Swain’s PhD research discovered many young male offenders have language disorders and fail to understand the complex language of the justice system. Picture: Julie Jordan Scott / Flickr


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

These young men struggle to understand the complex language of police interviews, court appearances, or psychological intervention. The problem is their language disorders are hidden disabilities – masquerading as disinterest, or defiance.

While language disorder isn’t the only issue here, it does contribute to what is 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”.


I discovered Tom had a severe language disorder, 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 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 at 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.

Watch Nathaniel Swain’s 3 Minute Thesis speech in full.


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

The good news is this research demonstrates that communication matters for these vulnerable young people and, 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.

Nathaniel Swain is the winner of the University of Melbourne 2016 Three Minute Thesis Competition (3MT ®), and came second in the 2016 Asia Pacific 3MT Competition out of 50 university entrants from across the region.

Banner image: Jason Farrar / Flickr