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Understanding autism Dr Gray Atherton

What inspired your research focus?

I previously worked as a counsellor for young people with autism, and this work sparked an interest in learning more about how autistic people experience social interactions. There are a lot of assumptions and common misconceptions out there about people on the autistic spectrum, including how they learn, how they socialise and how they communicate. I am passionate about finding new ways to engage autistic people, and how we can work to find more of their strengths. It is understood that autistic individuals have strengths and weaknesses, and I wanted to work on finding out more about these strengths – and how we can use them to the advantage of people with autism.

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“Neurodiversity is what allows us each to have individual and unique differences, and these differences are blessings.”

-Dr Gray Atherton

You have done a lot of research into anthropomorphism in autistic people. Can you tell us what this is?

Put simply, anthropomorphism is what we do when we see non-human things as having human thoughts, emotions or feelings. A common example of this is when we watch a cartoon – like the Lion King. We are able to empathise with and understand the feelings of the lions in the movie, despite them not being human, as they are presented to us in human-like ways. Another example is when we observe our pets, and wonder “why is she behaving like that?”, “I wonder what she’s thinking?” or “she’s in a good mood”. These are all examples of anthropomorphism. Typically, there is an assumption in Psychology that people on the autistic spectrum are not able to anthropomorphise as well as their peers. However, my research has discovered that this is not the case – in fact, the opposite appears to be true. I’ve seen first-hand that this may actually be a key strength of autistic people.

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What impact could this discovery potentially have?

These findings are very new, and there hasn’t been much research done in this area before, but I’m really excited about pursuing this further and working to discover how we could use this as a benefit to people with autism. Using cartoon characters or animals in teaching and learning could make a huge difference for autistic students, and really aid their understanding.

How does your research and expertise inform your teaching?

I teach on the Special Educational Needs module, which is one of the optional modules we offer in the Psychology department. In this module, I teach students about neurodevelopmental conditions including autism, ADHD and dyslexia, and we work to understand how people with these conditions learn. My past experiences of teaching and counselling young people with special educational needs allows me to bring real-life experiences and examples into my teaching – to help put theoretical knowledge into context. As well as my practical experiences, my current research in this area informs my teaching. I’m always excited to share new research findings with my students, and they enjoy taking the opportunity to ask questions and delve deeper into the subject.

An image of children sat at a table in a classroom.

What do you think makes the Special Educational Needs module popular with students?

Special Educational Needs can be chosen as an optional module, not only for students on the BSc Educational Psychology degree, but also on the BSc Psychology degree. I think this is because the students recognise that having a deeper understanding of neurodiversity is crucial if you’re pursuing a career in Psychology. Neurodiversity is what allows us each to have individual and unique differences, and these differences are blessings. They are what give us flavour. And the Special Educational Needs module teaches very much from this perspective.

As well as academic knowledge of the subject, which often leads to interesting dissertation study, the soft skills students will takeaway from this module will serve them throughout their life. Students who understand special educational needs and neurodiversity are able to take their understanding and empathy with them into the real world. Regardless of what career path you choose to follow, empathy and patience are key transferable skills that allow you to understand others and appreciate them for who they are. Throughout life – whether it be building relationships with friends, raising children or in the workplace – the skills you’ll learn on this module will always serve you well.  

July 11, 2022