September 8, 2021

Credit: Getty Images

By Lida Tunesi

A new study, published in Autism, by Professor Kristen Gillespie-Lynch (GC/College of Staten Island, Psychology) shows empirical evidence that trainings for university students that are meant to fight prejudice against autism are more effective when autistic people help develop them.

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While the results of the study might sound self-evident, Gillespie-Lynch said that this kind of participatory autism research only emerged in 2006, led by a group in Portland called AASPIRE (Academic Autism Spectrum Partnership in Research and Education).

“AASPIRE initially faced pronounced resistance as people, including funders, thought autistic people lacked insight and thus would not have the skills to be researchers,” Gillespie-Lynch said. Researchers have since overcome some of these obstacles and now there is growing interest in including autistic people in research on autism. “There’s basically a sea change going on in autism research right now that allows these types of ideas to emerge and seem obvious now, when they didn’t before.”

Most university students only experience autism-awareness training if it is required for a class, and even then, information about autism often frames autistic people as “‘less than’ some imagined ideal of normalcy” the paper authors wrote. The authors, including several autistic students, hope to change this.

The researchers developed two trainings — one developed with the help of the autistic co-authors and one without — and administered them to students in the U.S. and Lebanon. They found that the participatory training was more effective at improving knowledge of autism and inclusive attitudes, and in battling stigma. The students said that the chance to learn from autistic people was a strength of the training.

While it would be great to see more university students receive this kind of training, Gillespie-Lynch said it could be hard to implement. Schools must choose from many programs competing for limited funding and typically, things like sports tend to receive more support than disability offices and programming.

But priorities may be slowly shifting. The University of California system recently adopted a new set of recommendations for making their schools more welcoming for neurodiverse students, including those with autism, ADHD, and dyslexia. Gillespie-Lynch hopes that the UC program will help administrators see the value in these changes.

“CUNY has historically been at the forefront of developing supports for autistic students through its Project REACH programs, but this commitment is piecemeal as Project REACH is not on all campuses,” she said. “Hopefully CUNY’s prior commitment plus seeing sea changes in other institutions will lead to more system-wide changes here at CUNY over time.” 

People in non-administrative positions should take note of this work, too. Gillespie-Lynch’s lab is now studying similar trainings developed in collaboration with autistic people, but for faculty instead of students. Gillespie-Lynch plans to examine the effects the trainings have on teaching practices, but until then, the new study offers guidance.

“These findings are relevant for educators in terms of how they teach, by suggesting they should center the voices of marginalized people,” Gillespie-Lynch said, “and how they structure their labs, by suggesting that they should collaborate with the people they want to help.”

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