How can autistic people develop the skills to manage the different way they interact with the world? Simon Horsford talks to Mark Brosnan, a professor at the University of Bath’s department of psychology and a director of its Centre for Applied Autism Research

Mark Brosnan is making a difference to people’s lives. A professor at the University of Bath’s department of psychology and director of its Centre for Applied Autism Research, he and his team are passionate about making life easier and more manageable for autistic people.

In recent years increasing research has raised the awareness of autism and shown it to be a growing global issue. At the last estimate in the UK (more than 10 years ago), it was recognised that around one per cent of the population have been diagnosed with autism, so that’s upwards of 700,000 people. A more recent study in the United States put the figure there at around 1 in 59, which if translated to the UK would be around 1.2 million. A statistic many might find surprising.

I am talking to Brosnan ahead of World Autism Awareness Day on 2 April (and World Autism Week, 1–7 April), which aim to put the spotlight on the hurdles that people with autism face every day.

Mark Brosnan with the Countess of Wessex

Brosnan explains “Autism is a life-long condition, so there is never a cure, but there are ways of managing it. It’s also now part of the neuro-diversity movement, which is trying to accept difference in terms of equality. Many members of the autistic community don’t see themselves as having a deficit, but, rather, having a difference in their social processing from ‘neuro-typical people’ as they call us.” He says that many also prefer the term ‘autistic people’ rather than ‘people with autism’.

I ask Brosnan how he defines autism. “If you take the deficit model, it is about difficulties with social interaction, everyday chit-chat, making eye contact, knowing what to say, feeling awkward in social situations and understanding what the intentions of other people are. Autistic people do, though, have a problem being seen as having a deficit, rather than a difference. Coming from psychology, we have a diagnostic criteria, so we ask ‘what do you need help with?’. But, formally, it is characterised as having difficulties with social interaction combined with repetitive behaviour and a preference for routine, or focused interests.” A recent independent review also accepted that autism is “not a mental health condition.”

Last year a study at the University of Cambridge posited the ‘male brain theory’ about autism, in other words, autistic people will, on average, show a shift towards ‘masculinised’ scores on measures of empathy and systemising. So they will be below average on empathy tests, but at least average, or even above average, on organisational skills. Brosnan, however, adds the rider with this particular study that women are often under-diagnosed as they are more adept at camouflaging their condition.

The sobering fact, however, is that Brosnan says “About half of the people with a learning disability manage to get employment, whereas with those autistic people who are willing and able to get work only 16 per cent do so.” A far lower proportion than any other disability group.

He continues, “People with autism can have a wonderful skill set and a wide range of abilities; they score highly in a classic intelligence test, but there is that hurdle of the interview and the application form.

“So if we can start to think about having to overcome those hurdles, we can make adjustments to enable them to work within an organisation.

To this end Brosnan – who also lectures students on final year psychology – and his colleagues run two out-of-term spring and summer schools, the former aimed at people with autism who are about to leave university and seek employment, and the latter at those about to start university. It’s all about making a level playing field for potential students and employees.

You see people arriving thinking no-one is going to want them and when they leave you see the optimism and a belief that they have so much to offer

The spring school is backed by JP Morgan, who have been proactive in helping tackle the issue. Students spend a day at the university learning interview skills and how to write a CV and another day with JP Morgan. Interviews by Skype or extended email conversation can also help build up an understanding before any face-to-face meeting. The positive news is that other banks have also approached the university to get involved in the employment school.

The summer version has about 30 people on the autism spectrum for whom going to university can be an anxious and particularly stressful time. Brosnan says: “They come here for three days so they can get the whole experience of living in halls, attending lectures and doing some sport type stuff.”

Both schools give Brosnan that wow moment: “You see people arriving thinking no-one is going to want them and when they leave you see the optimism and a belief that they have so much to offer.”

Brosnan has been at the university for 16 years and helped set up the Centre for Applied Autism Research three years ago. A particular focus is developing digital technology to support children on the autism spectrum; he has long been fascinated by how people interact with technology and some years ago wrote a book on technophobia.

“We are keen to incorporate the autistic community in the design of digital technologies, such as Maths Island Tutor, and they’ve come up wth some fantastic ideas which we would not have thought of. It’s all about involving them and asking what they want to happen if they get an answer right.. or wrong.

“There are a range of apps being developed and there is also something called Social Stories, which began in the US and is typically used to address challenging behaviour and essentially explains what is going to happen step-by-step so a child fully understands and isn’t unnerved by new experiences.”

The university has also run a four-week Smart ASD online course, which explores how new apps can best support autistic children, with or without learning difficulties. It is designed to equip carers and practitioners with skills and new ideas. They are planning to run the course during World Autism Week.

Elsewhere in the centre they are working on the criminal justice system and how autistic people can best be interviewed (whether they are the accused or a witness); one survey suggested 69 per cent of autistic people were unhappy with how they had been treated by police officers. The centre is also looking at how those suffering with depression and anxiety can be helped psychologically, and it is also studying which parts of the brain are implicated in autism.

Away from work, Brosnan is a campanologist (bellringer) at St Mary’s Church, Bathwick. “I’ve only been doing it a couple of years and I am a total beginner. On one level it’s quite simplistic, but it’s actually quite complicated and takes years to master. It’s almost meditative and you have to rhythmically adjust what you’re doing to match everyone else. It’s a real challenge and quintessentially English.”

One other trait that features with those on the autistic spectrum is honesty. It’s appropriate then that Brosnan, ever the psychologist, once said that if he possessed one superpower, it would be Wonder Woman’s lasso of truth: “Think how different the world would be if people could only tell the truth,” he says.

Through his research the pioneering Brosnan is certainly giving a truer picture of autism and helping those on the spectrum cope with the realities of everyday life.

Featured image: Mark Brosnan