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Leading the change to support the needs of neurodivergent people

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Dr Amy Pearson recently joined our Centre for Neurodiversity and Development. She researches the lives of autistic and other neurodivergent people. Here she tells us more about her work and how cooking and acrobatics help her relax (although not at the same time!)

Amy enjoying an aerial class
Amy enjoying an aerial class

Tell us about your research into relationships and masking.

I am particularly interested in interpersonal relationships, and how the experience of violence in relationships relates to a form of identity management called ‘masking’. My work has shown that many autistic people feel like they can’t be their authentic selves around others. They can grow up feeling like there is something ‘wrong’ about them (whether they are aware that they’re autistic or not). Masking can seem like a way to stay safe or avoid negative social judgments. However, a lot of the time it puts people at further risk of being taken advantage of by others.

What got you interested in this area?

My brother was diagnosed with autism and ADHD as a child, and that drove my interest as a student. My PhD examined cognitive development among autistic people.  However, over time I realised that I wanted to do research that was more closely related to everyday autistic community priorities. That, coupled with my own adult autism diagnosis really spurred me on to do work that I hope will lead to tangible (positive) changes for other autistic people.

What have you been working on lately.

I recently completed a collaborative project exploring the impact of intimate partner violence among autistic adults, and ways to improve support provision. As part of this project we developed a healthy relationship guide aimed at autistic people. It was created using insights from our project participants on what healthy relationships look like. It helps people to spot red flags (or warning signs) that someone may be acting in an abusive manner.

What do you hope to achieve with your work?

I hope that my work can lead to changes both inside and outside of academia. Within academia we have historically framed neurodivergent people through a really pathologising lens, which has influenced service provision and support available. By taking a more affirming approach, we can create changes in the way that the needs of neurodivergent people are viewed by others. It can also help us to develop a solid evidence base that shows what we need to change to meet these needs. I see my work as leading the charge in this area, demonstrating how we can deliver the support people need in an ethical and community-driven way.

What’s the best bit of advice you would give others?

I think the best piece of advice that I would give others would be to learn how to respond to criticism well. Especially for researchers who work with humans. As someone who works in an area where research has led to community harm, it’s important to learn how to take criticism in a non-defensive way and to question your own biases.

What do you like to do in your spare time?

I enjoy going on a nice walk with my partner and our dog, as well as going to the gym and aerial classes. I really enjoy reading (currently loving books in the fantasy or dark fiction genres), and cooking – cooking is one of my favourite things to do to relax.



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