Professor Jones awarded for autism research

ACU’s Pro Vice-Chancellor, Engagement, Professor Sandra Jones, has been recognised in the 2019 Autism CRC Awards with the Translation of Autism Research Award for her research in collaboration with Amaze.

The award recognises two research projects lead by Professor Jones to assess community attitudes   towards autism and explore supports for autistic people.  ACU’s Dr Muhammad Akram, from the Mary MacKillop Institute for Health Research, was the lead statistician on both projects.

The first of its kind in Australia, the research was initiated and funded by the peak body for autistic people and their supporters in Victoria, Amaze.

“Amaze wanted to establish baseline measures so that we can track changes in the Australian community’s understanding, engagement and acceptance of autism into the future.  Another key aim is to track whether autistic people and their families perceive their inclusion in society as improving over time,” Professor Jones said.

The first research study sought to determine levels of understanding about autism amongst the community and surveyed Australian adults on their understanding of autism facts and myths.

This study found that community awareness of autism was high, but confidence in providing support was low: 98 per cent of participants had heard of autism and 86 per cent personally knew an autistic person, but only 29 per cent agreed they would know how to support an autistic person.

“The research uncovered concerning levels of belief in common myths. For example, 39 per cent of participants incorrectly believed (or were unsure) that autistic people are often violent, 51 per cent believed that schools can refuse enrolment, 22 per cent believed that autism is caused by vaccines and 22 per cent believed that autistic people grow out of the condition,” Professor Jones said.

The second research project surveyed autistic people and their families to understand their experiences of interacting in the wider community, and their priorities for building understanding and acceptance in society.

Results found that only four per cent of autistic people and their families believed the community knew how to support them.  Additionally, 51 per cent reported feeling socially isolated and 39 per cent often could not leave the home due to the negative reactions of others or due to experiencing sensory sensitivity.   Levels of support in schools and workplaces were also low, with very few adjustments being made and 44 per cent of secondary students moving schools due to lack of support.

“These social and environmental barriers contribute to the low levels of employment and post-secondary education among autistic people. Society’s focus on the challenges of autism means that the unique strengths and capabilities of autistic people are frequently overlooked. Increased acceptance from the community and simple environmental modifications can facilitate inclusion and enable autistic people to reach their potential, with significant benefits to society,” Professor Jones said.

Professor Jones’s research data has been used in policy submissions to government, and to inform the development of five-year Victorian Autism Plan.  The research has also informed autism support resources such as fact sheets at www.onethingforautism.com.au, where the research reports are also available for download.

“As an autistic person, and an advocate for the autism community, I was excited to work on this important research with Amaze and am delighted that its impact has been recognised with this award.  I hope that this ongoing research will encourage more people to learn about autism, dissipate harmful myths, and improve support and inclusion for autistic people,” Professor Jones said.


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