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Autism: promoting understanding and action

Innovative research at the OU has helped to challenge common stereotypes of autism, informing initiatives to promote understanding, profesional practices and well-being for autistic people worldwide.

Key impacts include:

Harnessing the online environment to promote understanding, perceptions and actions for the well-being of autistic people across the UK and in other countries worldwide.

Providing training resources attuned to the needs and interests of professionals, families and autistic individuals.

Steps towards impact

Dr Ilona Roth’s innovative research on autistic cognition has highlighted the diversity of traits and abilities that accompany the challenges experienced by autistic people, and has underlined the need for autistic voices and self-insights to inform research findings.

From this base, Dr Roth developed resources to enhance public understanding, challenge stigmatising assumptions 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 these 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. Evaluation of these materials showed a significant impact in reducing health workers’ negative beliefs about autism and autistic people. 

Key Impact Initiatives

Perceiving the potential of relatively modest levels of autism training, and the 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 attracted over 72,000 enrolments to date (July 2021), including autistic individuals, family members and professionals in education, medicine, health care and social work. It is estimated that 4000 or more enrolled learners are outside the UK.

An end-of course survey showed 89 per cent of respondents reported improved knowledge of autism and 83 per cent improved understanding of autistic people. 62% reported impacts on their work in this area and 56% felt encouraged to raise awareness of autism.

The Scottish Government Mental Health Directorate has endorsed and publicised Understanding Autism alongside their ongoing autism strategy.

Others adopting the course include an autism centre in Romania that has translated the course for staff and parent use.

Research publications