UL International research seminar on the mental health of students with autism spectrum disorder

The inaugural i-TEACH (Teaching for Inclusion) research seminar, whose theme was “New Foundations: Perspectives in Supporting the Emotional Wellbeing of Students with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)” was held at the newly built Analog Devices Building, UL last week. The seminar was attended by more than 50 delegates from across Ireland, and marked the launch of the i-TEACH network, a network of educators and allied professionals who support students with additional and complex learning needs.

The main objective of the seminar was to foster dialogue and exchange of knowledge in order to contribute to the search for solutions to challenges confronting educators in best supporting students with ASD who are at high risk of developing serious social emotional issues, particularly in adolescence. The seminar was funded by the Irish Research Council and led by Dr Jennifer McMahon, lecturer in Psychology and Special Education and director of the i-TEACH lab. Dr McMahon noted ‘We wanted to shine a light on this hugely important issue. School is not just about academic success but also about ensuring that students have the social emotional skills to navigate the complex and often daunting social world that will impact all areas of their development. Evidence-informed practice advice is critical for improving the effectiveness of support offered to students with ASD in our schools’.

From left Associate Professor Tatja Hirvikoski, Dr Judith Hebron, Professor Richard Hastings, and Dr Jennifer McMahon

Dr Rachel Msetfi, Assistant Dean of Research at UL, opened proceedings noting the importance of bringing together all the key stakeholders responsible for supporting students with ASD. The papers presented at the seminar were prepared by international experts drawn from Sweden and the United Kingdom.

Dr Tatja Hirvikoski, Associate Professor at The Karolinska Institute in Sweden, presented on the high risk of suicide in people with ASD. Professor Hirvikoski’s research was nominated as one of the top 10 Autism research papers of 2015 by Autism Speaks, the most influential autism advocacy organisation in the world. Dr Judith Hebron, research fellow at the University of Manchester, presented on the experience of students with ASD on the transition from primary school to secondary school. Professor Richard Hastings, University of Warwick, presented on the mental health of young children with ASD and the impact on the wellbeing of family members such as mothers and siblings. Richard Hastings is a Professor of Education and Psychology as well as the Cerebra Chair of Family research in the Centre for Educational Development, Appraisal & Research (CEDAR). In addition he is advisor and research partner to Ambitious about Autism and SIBS, a charity for brothers and sisters of people with a disability.

Discussion sessions during the seminar were moderated by a panel of experts comprising academics, policy makers as well as representatives of organisations that share a passion for the support of students with ASD and have unique perspectives on how it can be achieved. This complemented the diverse mix of expertise of delegates attending the research day and will discussions will provide a basis for formulating a blueprint for supporting students with ASD in relation to their emotional wellbeing in schools.