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Promoting the voices of autistic children

Collaborating with education providers to improve the lives of children on the autism spectrum.

Published: 28 October 2019

Children on the autism spectrum often have a difficult time when moving between educational settings. Our researchers are leading a unique collaboration with local nurseries and schools to find new ways of conveying the views and voices of these children, to help them settle into their new schools.

The Autism Community Research Network @ Southampton (ACoRNS) is a collaboration between Southampton researchers and local schools, colleges and nurseries who are interested in researching and sharing good practice in educational provision for children on the autism spectrum. ACoRNS was set up in 2017 with funding from the University’s Public Engagement with Research Unit (PERU).

“Many autistic children have difficulties with social communication. In ACoRNS, our research focuses on how to access the voices and views of children in meaningful ways that can give educational settings a real understanding of each child,” says Sarah Parsons, ACoRNS co-director and Professor of Autism and Inclusion at Southampton Education School.

We know there’s a big gap between research and practice, particularly in autism education. Our aim is to work with schools to generate research questions that are relevant to them, so that we can answer these questions and, together, continually improve practice.

Sarah Parsons - ACoRNS co-director and Professor of Autism and Inclusion at Southampton Education School.
ACoRNS research is aimed at looking how autistic children communicate socially
Riley greets one of his friends at Aviary Nursery

Capturing children’s voices and views

In a recent project, funded by the Froebel Trust, the researchers worked with Aviary Nursery in Eastleigh, a local ACoRNS partner, to create ‘digital stories’ for the nursery children. The team spent several months in the nursery filming with children, parents and practitioners.

“When a child diagnosed with autism moves to primary school, they typically have a written healthcare plan focusing primarily on all the things they can’t do and what the school needs to do to support the children, with little to nothing to represent the child’s views themselves. With these videos, we aim to give schools a better sense of who the child is as a person,” says Dr Hanna Kovshoff, ACoRNS co-director and Associate Professor in Developmental Psychology.

The research project came from a need identified by Aviary Nursery, who were involved from the start, and was only possible because of the partnership and trust built up between the nursery staff, parents, children and researchers.

“One of the really innovative things we did was to use ‘wear-cams’ on the children to get an authentic perspective on their world view. As far as I’m aware, this hasn’t been done before,” says Sarah. “It’s a very powerful way for schools to get to know the child.”

Having piloted this method, the team aims to extend this approach to a larger number of nurseries. In collaboration with Aviary Nursery, they have also developed a guide to help parents, nurseries and schools produce their own digital stories.

Ensuring autistic children have their voices heard
Luke enjoys walking along the crates in the garden at Aviary Nursery

Involving our students

ACoRNS also provides opportunities for Southampton students to get hands-on research experience and have a real impact on the lives of children.

Recent graduate Amber Warren (BSc Education and Psychology, 2019) was ‘highly commended’ in the University’s undergraduate dissertation social impact prize for her dissertation, which involved working with children to create storyboards of their experiences at school.

Knowing my work is having a positive impact on others, and experiencing this first hand, has been very rewarding and enjoyable.

Amber Warren - (BSc Education and Psychology, 2019)
Finding authentic ways to understand children
Oscar joins in the singing by playing the drum at Aviary Nursery

Sarah and Hanna are keen to share the good practice learned from ACoRNS research. As well as including this in undergraduate teaching, research training, and supervising BSc, MSc, PhD and DEdPsych students on projects, they have conducted workshops with trainee teachers and educational psychologists, and for Hampshire County Council.

Future plans

The researchers are now working with partner schools and nurseries to develop a mobile ‘listening pod’, to act as a safe space for children to talk about their experiences in school.
“We took inspiration from Radio 4’s The Listening Project – it’s about having conversations with people and seeing what they talk about,” says Hanna. “We are aiming to develop the pod with our ACoRNS partners, so the children can give their input on what the pod should contain. Then, the idea is to take the pod to schools locally initially, and eventually do a national roadshow, prioritising children’s voices.”

ACoRNS currently focuses on the Hampshire area, but the team has ambitious plans to take its innovative approach further afield. “Our vision is that there will be ACoRNs around the UK, and potentially internationally, with the same principles: prioritising children’s voices, using questions from practice and working in partnership. As a result of our collaborations, there is already a second ACoRN being set up at the University of Sussex,” says Sarah.

“It feels very exciting that a way of research practice we’ve started here at Southampton is beginning to show its benefits further afield.”

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