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The University of Southampton
Public Engagement with Research

The Autism Community Research Network @ Southampton (ACoRNS)

conversations at the ACoRNS Launch Event
conversations at the ACoRNS Launch Event

Project lead/contacts

Professor Sarah Parsons, s.j.parsons@soton.ac.uk  Southampton Education School, Faculty of Social & Human Sciences

Dr Hanna Kovshoff, h.kovshoff@soton.ac.uk School of Psychology, Faculty of Environmental & Life Sciences

Purpose

To create a forum for discussing and sharing educational challenges and best practices, and autism research findings;

To jointly identify the research priorities of local community members, provide a partnership for applying for funding to address these questions, and support ACoRN members in the delivery of research projects;

To promote autism and research awareness via local schools and colleges.

Funding

The PE Development Funding awarded by PERu was matched by funding from Southampton’s Talk2Us! (Schools/University Partnership) project.

Background and motivation

The team were motivated by the belief, based on experience (Parsons et al., 2013), that the best way for autism research and practice to genuinely meet the needs of children and young people in the local community is to involve them from the start, putting them at the centre of research and practice, and working collaboratively with professionals, schools, early year providers and children and young people.

Partnerships

The project formed a research-practice partnership between the University and local education settings spanning early years through to Further Education. As of June 2020, the ACoRNS partners include: Aviary Nursery, New Forest School, Totton College, Richard Taunton College, Springwell School, Hill House School, and Bitterne Park School.

Approach taken

ACoRNS was founded by three partners (the University, New Forest School and Aviary Nursery) with this ‘core’ growing over time to include the partners listed above, which span mainstream and specialist contexts. Together, ACoRNS members agreed that the main priorities for research and practice should be ‘transitions and trajectories’, with opportunities to hear from autistic children and young people as much as possible.

The ACoRNS launch event in June 2017 gave the local autism community opportunity to share their challenges and priorities and to shape the future of the project: attendees were invited to give feedback (via post-event email) about how they would like to be involved. Two autistic pupils from local schools attended and spoke about how their experiences with autism affected their life and education. Feedback was very positive:

‘I found the launch/open evening very informative and also a good chance to network with other professionals and parents. The young man who spoke so eloquently gives me hope for my daughter for the future’ – parent of a young person with autism.

Regular meetings were held for all members; these were opportunities to highlight key challenges for schools and pupils, and, in turn, inform new research. ACoRNS members could also gain insights into research resources for informing practice. ACoRNS members also contributed to teaching at the University on the Education School module Autism Spectrum Disorders, and the Initial Teacher Education training programme. 

in conversation at the Launch Event
in conversation at the Launch Event

Achievements/outcomes

Within the initial period of funding, ACoRNS established a co-constructed model of research and practice that has subsequently been published as a peer-reviewed journal article in Good Autism Practice (Parsons & Kovshoff, 2019). This model includes four main components:

(1)    Sustaining ACoRNS through funded joint projects and activities: for example, a joint funding application with Aviary Nursery was submitted to the Froebel Trust for a project on ‘The voices and experiences of children with autism, and their families, in their transitions from nursery to primary school.’ This was successful (£35k) and has led to further funding and highly impactful research (see project website for more information: https://autismtransitions.org/).

(2)    Enrolling University students as researchers: a core feature of ACoRNS work is involving students from BSc, MSc and Doctoral programmes in conducting original research projects for their degrees while also addressing practice-related research questions that come from ACoRNS partners. Within the first phase of the project, UG and PG students worked with ACoRNS members to complete research projects linked to identified priorities, including:

  1. A literature review of the transitions and trajectories of young people with autism between stages of schooling;
  2. A case study focusing on the participation of pupils with autism in decision making about their school experiences;
  3. An interview-based study looking at the management of educational transition of students with autism from preschool to primary education.

(3)    Practice-informing dissemination: all student projects and funded research is summarised on the ACoRNS website and key findings made freely and publicly available via short executive summaries: http://acornsnetwork.org.uk/projects/.  All published ACoRNS research is made publicly available, either via open access publishing routes and / or via ResearchGate where anyone can easily request papers. The ACoRNS team were also awarded £900 to run an event as part of ESRC Festival of Social Science in November 2017, at Totton College to raise awareness about autism research in a partnership context and highlight that research can be conducted within schools.

(4)    Teaching and training: where feasible, ACoRNS community partners have contributed to teaching at the University, and Sarah and Hanna have contributed to staff training activities within ACoRNS schools and settings. For example, Sarah provided an overview of the ACoRNS model and research findings for New Forest School as part of a staff development day. ACoRNS research has also been presented at local training conferences including the Portswood Teaching Schools Alliance Inclusion conference in January 2019.

engagement at the Lanuch Event
engagement at the Launch Event

Evaluation

Feedback gathered from participants at the Launch event showed strong support for the ACoRNS project and its aspirations, for example:

‘I think anything that raises the profile of children with autism can only be a good thing. I also think that sometimes there is a disconnect between research and what it is like in schools. Additionally I believe that many in society have a "view" of what autism looks like and that can also apply to teachers and to parents i.e. their experience of autism is what they believe autism looks like. I would hope that ACoRNS could be a leader in all areas’ - Secondary school SENCo and Manager for Autism Resourced Provision.

The iSurvey evaluation of teaching within the Autism Spectrum Disorders module was completed by 16 students who identified their main learning outcomes as ‘understanding research as it relates to the individual pupil’ and ‘understanding how theory will be implemented in education’.  This is a very encouraging indicator that the session supported the core mission of ACoRNS, which is to connect research and practice. Additional feedback showed that students appreciated the focus on real life practice, exposure to alternative perspectives, and the passion of those contributing.

The development of ACoRNS has been a genuinely reciprocal and shared endeavour between University researchers and community partners, where the research agenda was co-constructed to enable scrutiny of, and reflection on, practice, with each being mutually informing. The subsequent expansion of the network, and the range of outputs and ongoing work (see below) is testimony to the successful participatory approach of ACoRNS.

Challenges and Lessons Learned

With ACoRNS being co-constructed from the start, there were few problems experienced.  There was a high level of buy-in from all parties and a shared commitment to making ACoRNS a success.

The project, including the launch and the Festival of Social Science event, have helped to raise awareness amongst University and community colleagues about this collaborative model of working.

Without ‘core’ funding, there are ongoing challenges with securing funds to support projects and activities, as well as the management and promotion of ACoRNS work and materials (e.g. website maintenance and updates etc).

Legacy

ACoRNS has continued to grow since the initial investment from PERu. Specifically, since 2017 ACoRNS has:

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.

Parsons, S., Charman, T., Faulkner, R., Ragan, J., Wallace, S. & Wittemeyer, K. (2013) Bridging the research and practice gap in autism: the importance of creating research partnerships with schools. Autism, 17(3), 268-280.

Parsons, S., Ivil, K., Kovshoff, H. & Karakosta, E. (accepted / in press). ‘Seeing is believing’: exploring the perspectives of young autistic children through Digital Stories. Journal of Early Childhood Research.

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., 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.

Zilli, C., Parsons, S. & Kovshoff, H. (in press) Keys to engagement: a case study exploring the participation of autistic pupils in educational decision-making at school. British Journal of Educational Psychology. https://doi.org/10.1111/bjep.12331

Links

Website: http://acornsnetwork.org.uk/

Twitter: @ACoRNSoton

ResearchGate: https://www.researchgate.net/project/Autism-Community-Research-Network-Southampton-ACoRNS

Research highlight on ACoRNS: https://www.southampton.ac.uk/news/2019/10/promoting-the-voices-of-autistic-children.page 

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