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Promoting action for autistic people

Innovative research at the OU has helped to challenge common stereotypes of autism, informing initiatives to change perceptions, enhance understanding and promote action for autistic people worldwide.

Key impacts include:

Harnessing the online environment to promote understanding, perceptions and actions concerning autism across the UK and in other countries worldwide.

Providing training resources attuned to the needs and interests of professionals, families and autistic individuals in different economic and cultural contexts.

What this research has done

Dr Ilona Roth’s innovative research on autistic cognition has highlighted the diversity of traits and abilities among autistic people and emphasised the need for autistic voices and self-insights to inform research findings.

From this base, Dr Roth has developed resources to change public perceptions, challenge stigma and promote action regarding autism.  

As chair of the Open University undergraduate autism course, Dr Roth secured three years' Scottish Government funding of £150,000 to provide free places for over 500 learners in Scotland. Demographic and survey data showed that the Scottish-funded students were strongly represented among those students caring for, and/or working with autistic people. Beneficial impacts of studying the course on life and work were highlighted.

She also worked within a research team exploring autism awareness and stigma in Ethiopia, developing resources providing guidance for health workers.

My research on autistic cognition has highlighted autistic strengths in fields demanding imagination and creativity, or detailed knowledge, precision and sustained interest. Nonetheless, all autistic people may face profound challenges irrespective of nationality, culture and socio-economic status. I have therefore built these insights into autism education, training and capacity-building resources with worldwide reach, which are helping to enhance understanding of autism and to support autistic individuals and their families.

Dr Ilona Roth, The Open University

Evaluation of these materials showed a significant impact in reducing health workers’ negative beliefs about autism and autistic individuals.

Perceiving the impact of relatively modest levels of autism training, and the potential value and reach of free online resources, Dr Roth developed free courses hosted on the Open University’s online informal learning platforms.

These include the Badged Open Course Understanding Autism, launched in September 2018. It has already attracted over 13,500 enrolments, including autistic individuals, family members and professionals in education, medicine, health care and social work. An estimated 11% of learners are outside the UK.

End-of-course surveys show 88 per cent of respondents reported improved knowledge of autism and 88 per cent improved understanding of autistic people. And 61 per cent of respondents felt encouraged to raise awareness of autism.

The Scottish Government is now promoting Understanding Autism alongside their ongoing autism strategy, and their partner Autism Network Scotland is disseminating course information throughout Scotland.

Others adopting the course include Special Educational Needs Co-ordinators, for instance, for staff training in schools in South West England, and an autism centre in Romania that has translated the course for staff and parent use.

Research publications