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Institute of Education

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Q&A with Dr Laura Crane

Dr Laura Crane is Deputy Director and Associate Professor at the Centre for Research in Autism and Education (CRAE).

What is the focus of your research and what benefits do you hope your discoveries and/or insights will bring?

My research focuses on supporting autistic children, young people and adults in education, healthcare and criminal justice. Ultimately, I aim to do research that makes autistic people’s lives better. 

What working achievement or initiative are you most proud of?

Central to my work is a commitment to the meaningful involvement of the autistic community in my research. However, researchers – especially those at the early stages of their careers – are often unsure of how to start involving community members in their work. 

I was really proud to be awarded a British Academy Rising Star Engagement Award in 2017. The award allowed me to support other early career researchers in involving the autistic community in their autism research. I held an event called Aut2Engage, which was co-designed and delivered by autistic people and facilitated conversations around meaningful and ethical involvement of the autistic community in research.

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What do you most enjoy about your position?

I love the sense of achievement that comes with doing a piece of research that really makes a difference to people’s lives. 

I was involved in a project called ‘Know Your Normal’, which investigated mental health in young autistic people. This project came about because a group of young autistic people (Youth Patrons) from the UK charity Ambitious about Autism decided that this was a priority topic for them and they wanted to launch a campaign on the issue. They wanted this campaign to be underpinned by research, so they asked me and Professor Liz Pellicano (now at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia) to work alongside them to co-produce the research.

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The findings illustrated the importance of knowing what mental health ‘looks like’ in young autistic people (to know if and how this might change), and highlighted the need to provide tailored mental health support for this group.
 
As well as publishing this research in SAGE Journals, the young people wrote a policy report, developed a bespoke toolkit to help young autistic people monitor their mental health, and created a fantastic animation (above) to spread the Know Your Normal message. As a result of this research and its outputs, this project won the UCL Provost Award for Public Engagement 2018 in the category of Team Award (out of nine other teams across UCL)!
 

Which UCL programmes do you contribute to?

I lead the module Autism: Research and Practice, which provides a general introduction to autism plus in-depth explorations of research on autism education. I also deliver lectures on autism for a range of other courses, including teacher training programmes and professional doctorate courses.

I really enjoy having the opportunity to work with students from such diverse backgrounds – I brought my research expertise, the students brought their professional expertise, and we engaged in really interesting discussions about how we could bridge research and teaching practice."
Plus, I supervise masters and doctoral level students on a range of topics relating to autism (e.g., autistic girls and school exclusion, autism in minority ethnic communities, puberty in minimally verbal autistic girls with intellectual disabilities).

How has being at UCL in particular benefited you?

One of the many ways relates to UCL’s commitment to high quality public engagement. Many institutions treat public engagement as something that’s nice, but not necessary. I disagree – I think that involving communities in our research is integral to ensuring we do high quality, ethical science.
 
At the Centre for Research in Autism and Education (CRAE), we are committed to public engagement – ensuring that we share our work with the autistic community, involve them in discussions about autism research, and meaningfully co-produce research with them in equal partnership. I’m delighted that UCL share this vision and am proud to also be part of the UCL Centre for Co-Production in Health Research that is currently being developed (by UCL’s Public Engagement Unit) to facilitate community involvement in research.