Ground-breaking research into social inclusion

A message from the Vice President, Father Anthony Casamento CSMA:

Under the direction of our Pro Vice-Chancellor (Engagement), Professor Sandra Jones, ACU is developing a comprehensive program of supports and research to increase the inclusion of autistic students in university education and the inclusion of all autistic people in the broader community. I am delighted to support this program of activity, which is directly aligned to our mission as a Catholic university.

This is a cohort that experiences considerable marginalisation and discrimination, with lower educational and employment opportunities than people with any other disability and people without disability. At the same time, this is a group of people with unique strengths who can and do thrive at university and in employment with the right support mechanisms in place.

Those of you in Victoria will know that, this year, ACU launched the Autism Inclusion Program on the Melbourne and Ballarat campuses. This program provides a range of supports for students, including peer mentoring, access to comprehensive information for (prospective) autistic students, social and academic supports, a resource library, and the provision of a low-sensory room on each campus. In 2021, the program will roll out across all ACU campuses. Importantly, the program also aims to better support ACU’s autistic staff as well as students.

There are a range of opportunities for ACU staff to contribute to, and benefit from, the program. I encourage you to refer eligible students to the mentoring program, or to reach out to the team if you have questions.

There are numerous opportunities for student placements; for example, occupational therapy (OT) honours students are researching academic and environmental supports; and fourth-year OT placement students are creating sensory-friendly maps of ACU campuses. An ‘Introduction to Autism’ session is available for individual staff and work units; and Professor Jones is working with Professor John Munro on the development of personal development (PD) modules on specific aspects of teaching and supporting autistic students.

ACU researchers are working with key advocacy groups across Australia to undertake ground-breaking research into social inclusion. In 2017, Professor Jones and her team worked with Amaze (Autism Victoria) on the first-ever Australian study on the autism knowledge of the general community and the experiences of autistic people. This research won the 2019 Autism CRC Research Translation Award, and informed the ‘Change Your Reactions’ media campaign.

In 2020, the team are again working with Amaze on the second wave of this important research. This is a prime example of research engagement in action. The ACU team are working with an expert panel of autistic people and their families on the development of the surveys, and the panel is chaired by an autistic academic and convened by an autistic ACU student.

The ACU Engagement team is also working on a number of other research projects, including: a large-scale national survey to inform the Autism Alliance’s submission to the Senate Select Committee on Autism; an innovative qualitative study on the experiences of autistic people working in academia; and several psychology master’s student research projects, including exploring the challenges for autistic secondary school students of the Covid-19 lockdown.

If you would like to book in for a PD session, find out more about the Autism Inclusion Program, or explore opportunities for research collaborations and student placements, you can email the team at Sandra and John are particularly keen to hear from staff who would like to participate in a brief discussion to inform the development of the PD modules.

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