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The University of Southampton
Southampton Education School

The Autism Community Research Network @ Southampton [ACoRNS]

The Autism Community Research Network @ Southampton [ACoRNS] is a highly successful and flourishing interdisciplinary research group in the Schools of Education and Psychology. Launched in June 2017 with funding from the University’s Public Engagement with Research unit [PERu], ACoRNS is a research-practice partnership that aims to improve the lives of autistic children and young people within education.

We do this through working closely with schools and community services and settings to identify research questions that matter to practice, and apply creative methods to support autistic children, young people and adults to share their views and experiences. The projects, ideas, and funding bids we work on are jointly developed, evaluated and disseminated.  As such, impact is baked into the ACoRNS model with demonstrable societal outcomes achieved through our work. For example, the impact of our education-focused collaborative work with schools has been recognised in two ‘Outstanding’ Ofsted reports for two of our school partners:

 ‘Excellent links with Southampton University ensure that the latest academic research about supporting pupils who have autistic spectrum disorder is put into practice. As a result, successful strategies are introduced so that pupils are increasingly well supported.’ New Forest School

‘They seek advice from beyond the school…liaising with other local experts and carrying out research through their link with Southampton University. This enhances the school’s work considerably’. Hill House School

Creative method example: A storyboard from a pupil telling us about their school day
Creative method example: A storyboard from a pupil

ACoRNS is co-directed by Professor Sarah Parsons (Education) and Dr Hanna Kovshoff (Psychology), and was co-founded with community partners Aviary Nursery in Eastleigh and New Forest School in Hampshire. Since then, we have grown to include five more schools and colleges, and undertaken collaborative work with colleagues within the University of Southampton as well as with other schools and service providers nationally. Our model has also been adopted by colleagues at the University of Sussex who launched a sister ACoRN - ACoRN@Sussex - in October 2020. ACoRNS aligns with major University of Southampton strategic objectives through conducting interdisciplinary research and working with local schools and wider communities as part of the University’s commitment to being a Civic University.

“The success and powerful impact of being part of ACoRNS has given us an aspiration as a team to continue to share our new knowledge with a wider audience in our local community” - Kathryn Ivil, Nursery Manager, Aviary Nursery

about ACorns

Our vibrant ACoRNS research culture is supported by term-time, weekly meetings for our students, staff, Visiting Fellows, and volunteers, where there are frequent opportunities for all our research students and staff to present their work, as well as invited internal and external speakers; ‘journal club’ discussions around a published paper or related news story; researcher development sessions, such as writing for publication and ethics; and crucially, especially through lockdown, a sustained and welcoming space to support each other and share triumphs as well as challenges. We support students at Undergraduate, Masters and Doctoral levels as well as Post-Doc researchers, student internships, student and community volunteers, and Visiting Research Fellows.

We have won prestigious external funding for our research from the Froebel Trust, ESRC, and Epilepsy Research UK. We have also secured successive grants from the University’s ESRC Impact Acceleration Account, funding for several ESRC Festival of Social Science events, and fully funded Doctoral studentships from the South Coast Doctoral Training Partnership. We develop and apply a range of creative methods in our work including Digital Stories, which are increasingly being used in practice to support the transitions of autistic and other children and young people.

Creative method example: The Digital Stories ‘I am…’ Framework
Creative method example: The Digital Stories ‘I am…’ Framework

“The value of ACoRNS comes from the research that we do together. It is a real and trusting partnership, and we were able to gain insights into our practices as the research took place” - Mark Fry, Director of Education, New Forest School


ACoRNS publications

Hoy, K., Parsons, S., & Kovshoff, H. (2018) Inclusive school practices supporting the primary to secondary transition for autistic children: pupil, teacher, and parental perspectives. Advances in Autism, 4(4), 184-196.

Hummerstone, H. & Parsons, S. (in press). Co-designing methods with autistic students to facilitate discussions of sensory preferences with school staff: exploring the double empathy problem. International Journal of Research & Method in Education,

Parsons, S. (2021). The importance of collaboration for knowledge co-construction in ‘close-to-practice’ research. British Educational Research Journal, 47(6), 1490-1499.

Parsons, S., Ivil, K., Kovshoff, H. & Karakosta, E. (2021) ‘Seeing is believing’: exploring the perspectives of young autistic children through Digital Stories. Journal of Early Childhood Research, 19(2), 161–178.

Parsons, S. Kovshoff, H., & ACoRNS partners (2019) Building the evidence base through school-research partnerships in autism education: the Autism Community Research Network @ Southampton [ACoRNS]. Good Autism Practice, 20(1), 5-12.

Parsons, S., Kovshoff, H., & Ivil, K. (2020) Digital stories for transition: co-constructing an evidence base in the early years with autistic children, families and practitioners. Educational Review

Parsons, S., Kovshoff, H., Karakosta, E., & Ivil, K. (2021). Understanding holistic and unique childhoods: knowledge generation in the early years with autistic children, families and practitioners. Early Years.

Parsons, S., McCullen, A., Emery, T. & Kovshoff, H. (2019) Awareness within local authorities in England of autism spectrum diagnoses of Looked-After children. British Educational Research Journal, 45(1), 99-116.

Pickles, J., Parsons, S. & Kovshoff, H. (in press). Knowledgeable but not specialist: Virtual School Heads’ experiences of supporting autistic children in care. Oxford Review of Education,

Silver, K. & Parsons, S. (in press). Perspectives of autistic adults on the strategies that help or hinder successful conversations. Autism & Developmental Language Impairments,

Tansley, R., Parsons, S. & Kovshoff, H. (2021) How are intense interests used within schools to support inclusion and learning for secondary-aged autistic pupils? A scoping review. European Journal of Special Needs Education,

Ward, V.C., Parsons, S., Kovshoff, H., & Crump, B. (in press) Co-creation of research and design during a coding club with autistic students using multimodal participatory methods and analysis. Frontiers in Education: Digital Learning Innovations.

Warren, A., Buckingham, K., & Parsons, S. (2020) Everyday experiences of inclusion in Primary resourced provision: the voices of autistic pupils and their teachers, European Journal of Special Needs Education.

Wood-Downie, H., Ward, V., Ivil, K., Kovshoff, H. & Parsons, S. (2021). Using Digital Stories for assessments and transition planning for autistic pre-school children. Educational & Child Psychology, 38(3), 62-74.

Zilli, C., Parsons, S. & Kovshoff, H. (2020) Keys to engagement: a case study exploring the participation of autistic pupils in educational decision-making at school. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 90(3), 770-789.



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