In recent weeks, the largest ever UK autism research project, Spectrum 10k, was paused and an apology given to Autistic people, their families and charities that support them. The ubiquitous Simon Baron-Cohen, endorsed by several celebrities had declared how this research would investigate genetic and environmental factors that contribute to the wellbeing of autistic individuals and their families. Questionnaires and saliva DNA samples were to be used to learn how different genes are associated with autism and co-occurring health conditions.
Who wouldn’t support research that has the potential to reduce some of the health and wellbeing inequalities faced by Autistic people which, after all, are numerous and considerable?
Well…. A large proportion of the Autistic community don’t support the Spectrum 10K research in fact! A Twitter poll #AskingAutistics posed the question “What’s your view on Spectrum 10k?” The 582 respondents voted:
Not Sure 17%
Social media pages came alive with comments, questions, anger, fear, and objections about the way that so many autism research projects are undertaken. However, Autistic voices were repeatedly “shushed” and valid concerns about eugenics were mislabelled as conspiracy theories.
It may be helpful to understand a little about autism, about autism research, and about how autism is perceived.
Autism is a neurological variation, a naturally occurring expression of human neurodiversity. Autism is lifelong, and Autistic people can be of any gender or race and have a wide range of cognitive abilities. Autistic people almost always experience sensory information differently to non-autistic people. This means they process the world very differently to non-autistic people and subsequently have a different way of being in the world. I have spent 25 years working in the field of social care, and I am currently a director of Autism Wellbeing, a small non-profit organisation. I am undertaking PhD research about perceptions of autism, and my previous postgraduate research was about the effectiveness of mental health outcomes monitoring tools.
A review of autism research funding in the UK was carried out in 2016 by Autistica – the UK’s national autism research charity. The most common research areas were about the biology of autism; its causes; and autism treatments. Spending on autism research had trebled between 2013 and 2016.
Yet despite all this research, autistic people experience poor outcomes compared to their non-autistic peers in a range of life domains. Knowing about autism doesn’t necessarily improve outcomes for autistic people. When it comes to mental health, autistic people are more likely to die by suicide, are more likely to self-harm, and are more likely to experience mental illness than non-autistic people. Autistic people face barriers to seeking psychiatric treatment and as I discovered in my own experience as an Autistic person, misdiagnosis can often occur, and autism can be missed – with devastating effects.
Key findings of a report into UK autism research highlighted that academics perceive themselves to be engaged with the broader autism community, but this perception is not shared by other stakeholders, most notably autistic people and their families. Autistic people see the challenges of autism as societal and attitudinal and not about ‘curing autism’.
Autistica led a James Lind Alliance Priority Setting Partnership, that asked over 1,000 people for their top questions for autism research. These were then ranked in a final workshop attended by autistic people, parents, and professionals. The number one priority was about mental health and autism. Nowhere within the top ten was any mention of understanding the genetics or biology of autism.
The need for a different approach to autism research:
Very few studies have been completed about perceptions of autism, or attitudes towards autistic people. Research seems centred on fixing autistic people rather than improving society. Like many other Autistic people, the challenges I face are better explained by the social model of disability than the medical model. I do not feel that a better understanding of my genetics will reduce the barriers I face every day as an Autistic person.
My PhD research sits within the field of social science and my presentation recently won the WISERD PhD poster competition: “I feel like a square peg in a round hole: How is autism perceived and does it matter? – An exploratory case study into perceptions of autism within a Community Mental Health Team”.
In academic literature there is a disconnect between autism as a condition and being autistic as an experience. Autism is seen as a medical disorder and so attracts a disproportionate amount of research interest and funding – you could even say it is a research topic that keeps on giving. As an essentially narrative condition diagnosed on the subjective opinion of clinicians, autism is susceptible to ceaseless and sustained interpretation and reinterpretation. According to the prevailing science based, medical, cognitive interpretation of autism as involving a lack of theory of mind, autistic experience itself is a “black box” and hence not susceptible to investigation, let alone interpretation. Perhaps this relieves researchers of any felt obligation to interrogate either their own perceptions of autism/autistic experience or anybody else’s.
My PhD research question took a while to materialise. I considered a number of research topics, all related to autism; and time and time again, I kept coming back to the same concept. No matter how much we know “about” autism – Autistic people still experience poor outcomes. Perhaps the issue is not about something that is “wrong” with Autistic people, but something that is wrong with the way Autistic people are perceived and consequently treated. As my research question materialised, I realised that what was missing from the research was not “what is autism?” or “which gene causes autism?” but “how is autism perceived?” I believe that by exploring this area of research, outcomes for autistic people may be improved.
I believe it is time for researchers to collaborate with Autistic people and together take a look outside of the bodies and brains of Autistic people and into society, to see how improvements can be made.