Developing Excellence in Autism Research and Practice

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The College of Social Sciences was delighted to host the inaugural lecture of Professor Karen Guldberg, Professor of Autism Studies.

The event took place on Friday 27 September, and saw 250 staff, students and members of the community join Professor Guldberg at the Bramall to discuss how excellence can be developed in autism research and practice.

Professor Guldberg’s lecture was introduced by Professor Richard Black, Pro-Vice-Chancellor and Head of the College of Social Sciences. Professor Black spoke about Karen’s academic background and her interest in technology for autistic pupils, which can aid in the development of social communication.

The lecture began with a discussion of the importance of education and how education can be the arena that can make the greatest difference for those with autism. Professor Guldberg reflected on how understanding the ways in which research and theory can inform practice is crucial.

Karen explained how she would break the lecture down into three section. This firstly focused on how we can develop a more holistic understanding of autism by drawing on different disciplines, followed by why we need closer alignment between research and practice, and finally advising on the teaching and approaches needed in classrooms.

Professor Guldberg argued that in order to fully understand autism, a bio-psycho-social approach was required whereby we draw on a number of domains of knowledge whilst keeping the person at the centre drawing on the perspectives of autistic people. Biological, psychological and social research relating to autism was then discussed. The biology of autism was given an overview, highlighting that autism still continues to be diagnosed through behaviour based criteria – however Karen gave the argument that autism should be seen as different and not a ‘disordered’ way of being.

Karen then went on to talk about how it is important to focus on the emotional, cognitive and developmental elements of psychological research, however the tendency to date has been to focus on the cognitive – investigating psychological functioning as innate, rather than as a product of the culture that they emerge from. Importance was placed upon not reducing the mind to just the biological mechanics of the brain, instead placing more emphasis on how we develop as human beings.

It was established that autism will affect a person biologically, and this in turn influences how a person processes and experiences the world, whilst their development and experience will also be affected by how they are supported and educated.

Professor Guldberg called for a better alignment between research and practice in autism education so that both areas can contribute to improving school experiences for pupils with autism. Good autism practice was defined as the need to draw on practice-based knowledge and policy, the need to have knowledge around bio-psycho-social approaches, and to ground what we understand in practice-based knowledge and policy.

Karen then described how eight principles of good autism practice had been developed:

1)      Understanding the strengths, interests and challenges of each individual

2)      Enabling the voice of the pupil to contribute to and influence decisions

3)      Collaboration with parents and carers

4)      Workforce development

5)      Leadership and management that promotes and embeds good autism practice

6)      An ethos and environment that fosters social inclusion

7)      Targeted support and measuring progress

8)      Adapting the curriculum, teaching and learning to promote wellbeing and success

Professor Guldberg ended the lecture by concluding that Good Autism Practice is about having commitment to broad inclusive principles whilst recognising the need for teaching approaches that are based on the distinct group-based needs of autistic pupils, and that of their individual needs. Making a difference requires the integration of the best available research, practical experience in the classroom, and the insider perspective within the context of individual characteristics, cultures, values and preferences.

Professor Mike McLinden, Deputy Head of Education, then closed the lecture and gave his thanks to Professor Guldberg, praising her inspirational work before speaker and audience then mixed in a canapé reception.