Creating Impact - autism, research, and making a splash with a research fellowship!

Hello!


Firstly, welcome to my webpage, and blog! For those of you who have found yourself on my page with no idea who I am – let me introduce myself. My name is Monique Botha, and I am a community psychologist. I am an autistic academic who researches autism, mental health, and community, amongst other things. As you can read on the homepage of my website, I am exceptionally enthusiastic about creating impactful research that can address the needs of the autistic community. I have a professional history of working in the community with autistic children and their families, and of doing research which addresses the high rate of poor mental health, stigma, and discrimination in the autistic community.


I wanted to take an opportunity to talk about what my current role as a Postdoctoral Fellow involves, and what my work will be focusing on over the next year. I have been exceptionally lucky and privileged to have been awarded an Economic and Social Research Council award with the Scottish Graduate School of Social Science, for a Postdoctoral Fellowship that I will conduct at the University of Stirling. This is an incredible opportunity, and I thought it would be great to take people on this journey with me!


So… what is the ESRC Postdoctoral Fellowship scheme?

Great question! The scheme is designed to help bridge the gap between finishing your PhD, and securing an academic position, whether this is through a grant, a longer fellowship, or a role such as a lecturer at a university. The Fellowship provides a year of mentorship from an established academic and gives Fellows time to basically build capacity for an active and fruitful academic career through network building, publishing, and grant writing. The Fellowship also gives Fellows access to fantastic training opportunities with the Doctoral Training Partners that administer the Fellowships. For me, this is the Scottish Graduate School of Social Science (SGSSS).


And who is my fellowship mentor?

I am very lucky that my postdoctoral mentor will be the fabulous Dr Eilidh Cage. Eilidh’s work also focuses on mental health and wellbeing in the autistic community, as well as camouflaging/masking, autism acceptance, and dehumanisation. Eilidh is, like me, passionate about including autistic people in research, and shaping research around the priorities of the autistic community.


What are my goals for the fellowship?

I have five key goals for during my Fellowship:


1) Publish! Publish! Publish!

During my PhD I conducted four studies focusing on autistic community connectedness as a potential buffer against the effects of minority stress on mental health in the autistic community. In plain English, I wanted to see if connectedness to the wider autistic community would help to limit some of the effect that being exposed to stigma and discrimination has on the mental health of the autistic community. As such, I have a lot of good quality research that needs to be written up. These studies include qualitative investigations of stigma, identity, and autistic community, a study in which I made and tested a measure of community connectedness, a study where I tested whether community connectedness buffers the impact of minority stress on mental health, and lastly, a longitudinal study that measured the effects of minority stress, and community connectedness on the mental health of autistic people over time. Aside from this, I spent a lot (and I mean a lot) of time thinking and reading about what ethical research in autism looks like, which is something that I am also aiming to publish on. This fellowship, and the mentorship of Eilidh, gives me time and support to publish these findings in high-quality, peer-reviewed academic journals. These publications will help to develop an evidence base for the role of community connectedness, address poor mental health in the autistic community, while also giving me a chance to increase my publication track record.


2) Spread the word on my research – everywhere!

Research belongs out in the world, with the communities it effects and making some welcome change, not sitting in an office drawer! I want to spend time engaging with everyone that I possibly can about the existence of my research – not only my family who undoubtedly hear about it every chance I get, (“Merry Christmas mom, you wouldn’t believe this thing I found in my latest study”). This Fellowship gives me a chance to attend key conferences (mostly likely virtually given the current pandemic), time to write this blog, and an opportunity to create some non-traditional ways of engaging with autistic communities, their families, practitioners, and policy makers. Over the course of the Fellowship I will be aiming to build up my social networks, launch my website, give presentations, and do my best to get out there and spread the word on mental health, community connectedness, and minority stress. I want to engage more widely than just within my academic bubble! I will be writing updates in the form of this blog.


3) Do some more exciting (and meaningful) research.

As part of the Fellowship I get to plan and conduct some further research. I’m currently working on my ideas for this research, but myself and Eilidh are hoping to collaborate on something looking particularly at ethical issues within autism research itself. Watch this space for more information!


4) Build up my expertise with “R” and data analysis

I will also be spending time building up my skills with R. R is a free-to-use, open source tool for analysing data – it is meant to be nifty and useful for conducting statistical analysis. The Fellowship means that I have specific, earmarked time to participate in R training and build up my proficiency. I will have access to an incredible network within the SGSSS, and the Institute of Advanced Studies at the University of Stirling which will allow me to attend training programmes around R, and other skills.


5) Build networks.

The last aim of my fellowship is to build networks. There are lots of incredible research groups across the world doing powerful and incredible autism research. I am exceptionally lucky that three of these key research groups have offered me the opportunity with this Fellowship, to visit, collaborate, and work together to build future projects. The first is Dr Noah Sasson’s research lab at University of Texas at Dallas. His lab is responsible for excellent research looking at how autistic and non-autistic people interact and form impressions of each other. The second is Prof Liz Pellicano’s autism research group at the University of Macquarie which focuses on participatory and ethical autism research done hand-in-hand with the autistic community. The third is Dr Steven Kapp from the University of Portsmouth, who focused on great participatory, and meaningful autism research. Obviously, these opportunities might be limited by ongoing circumstances with COVID-19 in terms of visiting these labs face-to-face, and I will only be travelling if it is safe for everyone involved.

All in all, this fellowship is an exceptional privilege, and I am lucky to supported by a network of incredible research groups, mentors, and the SGSSS. As I progress through it I will producing a series of blogs detailing my experience throughout the fellowship, including as I publish work, go to conferences (whether virtually or in person), and as I build up these exciting new collaborations. Anyone who is interested can follow updates on website/blog!

If you’d like some more information or want to have a chat about the work feel free to use the contact form on the website and get in touch. I am always happy to hear from people including other autistic people, their families, other researchers, or service providers.

All in all, this fellowship is an exceptional privilege, and I am lucky to supported by a network of incredible research groups, mentors, and the SGSSS. As I progress through it I will producing a series of blogs detailing my experience throughout the fellowship, including as I publish work, go to conferences (whether virtually or in person), and as I build up these exciting new collaborations. Anyone who is interested can follow updates on website/blog!

If you’d like some more information or want to have a chat about the work feel free to use the contact form on the website and get in touch. I am always happy to hear from people including other autistic people, their families, other researchers, or service providers.

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