press release
Published: 04 December 2018

New £800,000 research project to improve well being of autistic girls through participatory arts workshops

By Natasha Meredith

The University of Surrey’s School of Psychology in collaboration with the University of Kent has successfully secured a new £800,000 award from the Arts and Humanities Research Council to investigate the impact drama, interactive media and participatory arts can have on autistic girls.

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Getty Images

During this pioneering new project, piloted by Professor Nicola Shaughnessy at the University of Kent, researchers will examine if the self-perception, mental well-being and self-esteem of autistic adolescent girls can be improved through participation in workshops using novel methods such as film, puppetry and performance.

Supporting the self-development of autistic girls, particulary during adolescence, is essential in improving their mental well-being. Previous research in this area has suggested that autistic women are more likely to experience feelings of invisibility, mask their identities and "fake it" in order to fit in. This results in high levels of anxiety, which can impact on mental well-being, self-confidence and self-worth, leading to increased rates of depression, self-harm and eating disorders amongst this group.

Dr Emma Williams, Lecturer in Developmental Psychology at the University of Surrey, said: “There is a particular need to support self development and well-being in adolescent autistic girls, as adolescence is a crucial period for making sense of who we are. During this time the differences and difficulties experienced by autistic girls become ever more pronounced with the increasing social and emotional pressures that come with getting older.

“Findings from our research could help inform the support offered to girls with autism.  The creative tools developed for use in the workshops could be embedded in the school curriculum.”

Sarah Wild, Headteacher at Limpsfield Grange where the pilot is taking place, said: “We're trying to get politicians to understand that this is a group who are massively under-diagnosed, but also that there are not the right services out there for them or the awareness, including GPs who don't understand what female autism looks like.”

Nicola Shaughnessy, Professor of Performance at the University of Kent, said: “Whilst it is now recognised that autistic girls are under researched, there is very little information about their lived experiences, although there is increasing concern about their mental health with reports of increased risk of depression, self harm and eating disorders in this vulnerable group.

“We are delighted to be working on a project that is interdisciplinary and participatory in order to understand more about the experiences of this community.”

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