Insights into autistic people’s perspectives have challenged public perceptions of autism and developed tools to help people with autism and their family members understand each other better.

Impacts

  • Brett Heasman's interactive photography exhibition Open Minds held in London and East Yorkshire in 2017 raised public awareness of the complexity of life for the UK's estimated 700,000 autistic people – with over 2,000 visitors, an exhibition video with more than 10,000 views on social media, and a special article about the exhibition featured in The Lancet Neurology.
  • Heasman's hazard perception video 'Walking with Cambell', highlighting the experiences of a young autistic man walking through town and the anxieties he faces, has over 1,500 views on YouTube.
  • The video is now a training resource for care providers, charities and local councils, including East Riding Council, Families for Individual Needs and Dignity, and Autism Spectrum Australia.
  • He developed a new tool for 'perspective taking' to gauge misunderstanding between autistic people's viewpoints and others for use by researchers and clinicians. The article featuring this research in the journal Autism was the most read paper within the journal in 2017, downloaded over 3,000 times.
  • He also created an animated video ('Perspective-taking is two-sided') to make his research more accessible to autistic audiences, with over 2,700 views.
  • Heasman provided advice to young autistic adults on how to manage their workplace relationships, helping employers understand how to improve the working environment for autistic employees. A blog highlighting employers' often unconscious bias and discrimination was shared over 500 times on social media.
  • He has used his experiences to guide early career researchers across the UK on how to carry out participatory research through the #Aut2Engage project hosted by University College London and King's College London, with over 50 early career researchers sharing the project link on social media.

"Autistic people have a hugely positive impact on the world which needs to be recognised, understood, and celebrated in society. Brett is at the forefront of showing other researchers how to listen and benefit from autistic voices, and is producing resources that all stakeholders – autistic people, carers, professionals and the public – can actually use in everyday life." (Robbie Stoakes, aspie (diagnosed with Asperger's) and carer for his autistic and learning-disabled brother)

About the research

Autistic people are very often misunderstood and misrepresented in society, argues PhD student Brett Heasman. Autism is more diverse and complex than most people realise, and misunderstanding autistic people’s complex needs can adversely affect their quality of life, relationships, support networks and job prospects.

Through innovative research in collaboration with Matthew's Hub – a Hull-based charity which supports young adults on the autistic spectrum – Heasman has developed resources that help autistic people explain the challenges they face from their own perspective. One surprising discovery is that even close family can misunderstand their autistic family member, sometimes failing to question their own assumptions about what he or she is thinking, and overgeneralising the extent of their social impairment.

Clearly there's an urgent need to promote autistic perspectives in society and enhance public understanding of the issue, Heasman says. Conducting participatory research among autistic people and then ensuring that the findings are easily accessible by everyone is key. His Open Minds interactive photography exhibition featured people from the community he had researched, giving members of the public the opportunity to approach the portraits and listen to recordings of people's life experiences.

Autism is different for everyone on the spectrum, but everyday functioning is strongly related to how the non-autistic community responds to autistic needs, Heasman argues. Greater understanding and a shift in public perception will enable autistic people to be more independent, and will allow society to be enriched by the diversity that autistic people bring.