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  1. Autism_spectrum_infinity_awareness_symbol.svg

    Image shows autism awareness infinity symbol wtih colour graduating from red at the left hand side of the symbol through the rainbow (orange, yellow, green, blue, purple) to magenta at the right hand side, with green at the centre of the symbol.

    Much of my research has arisen through my interests and the happy coincidences that have allowed me to pursue them. The intense scrutiny of a particular topic has always been something I’ve enjoyed. Now I’ve found why that might be, and that in turn has opened up more possibilities.

    A little while ago I watched a TV documentary on autism, and realised some of what I was seeing applied to me. The more I studied it, the clearer it became that I’m firmly on the spectrum. This was recently confirmed with a formal diagnosis.

    In many ways, I’ve been lucky in that I’ve been able to find work that I enjoy and am good at, and have the freedom to manage how I approach it. It’s taken me a while to get to this stage, but combining a postdoc position with Open University tutoring is working well for me, and I’m getting lots of positive feedback too which is lovely. The autistic traits of focusing on special interests and having an eye for detail are useful in both roles.

    This puts me in an unusual position.

    There is a huge need for more research in autism. At the moment, much of the focus is on children, but most autistic people are adults. There is an emphasis on cures, and treatments to make us appear more ‘normal’, even though autistic behaviours such as lack of eye contact or stimming (self-regulating movement such as hand flapping) aren’t hurting anyone, and supressing them can be distracting, uncomfortable or even painful. Fortunately, awareness is starting to increase of a large, neglected group: autistic adults, for whom there is little support, and about whom relatively little is known.

    It’s very common for mental health issues to occur alongside autism, largely because the world isn’t a user-friendly place for autistic people for many reasons. Physical health outcomes are poorer for autistic people than the rest of the population. Growing an evidence base, and exploring ways to help autistic people have a better quality of life is important work that needs to be done, and could tie in with the research experience I already have.

    Research is moving to look at the neglected areas. Researchers are also increasingly involving autistic people, not only as participants, but helping carry out projects. I’m keen to be involved. I’ve been in touch with a few organisations and researchers already to see if this is realistic, and they’ve been very encouraging.

    So if you would like to collaborate with an autistic researcher with expertise in mixed methods, health psychology and music psychology, here I am! I’m handy with SPSS and Qualtrics, know my way around an ethics application, and have had successful grant applications. I’ve published in peer-reviewed journals and collaborated on a Cochrane review. I’m aware that research with autistic populations needs a slightly different approach methodologically, and don’t want to find myself making mistakes here, so would love to pool my skills with collaborators who can help ensure a robust design.

    I’m also happy to participate in autism research, so if I could help there do get in touch (I might like a bit of extra debrief in return…).

    Note: I’ve used ‘autistic person’ rather than ‘person with autism’ because I don’t feel autism is detachable. Without it, I would be someone completely different and it’s integral to who I am, even though I didn’t realise it for so long. There is lots of debate over which should be used, and I appreciate that some people will disagree with me.

  2. viva

    Vivas, defenses, whatever your country/university calls them: at some point having finished your thesis, you'll be put through one. In 1998, I had the Viva from Hell. In hindsight, it wasn’t so bad. I got major corrections, which is kind of a pass but you have to rewrite big chunks (mine was mostly just one chapter). I didn’t know that much about vivas and when I didn’t get the ‘usual’ minor corrections that my PhD friends thought I’d get, it felt like I’d failed and that I’d never get the thing finished. Actually, all you need to do is what’s asked: it’s not as bad as it seems, you get there in the end, and nobody really cares what route you took.

    Even so, I didn’t want a repeat of Hell-viva. I was lucky to have a very thorough supervisor who read through drafts and redrafts of chapters and gave lots of feedback, so when my thesis got submitted, there probably wasn’t a lot I could have done to improve it. Nevertheless, the viva itself can be a scary thing, so here’s what helped me most in preparing.

    1.    Internal courses

    Keele runs a regular course on vivas, giving candidates lots of information on what to expect, how it all works and what it’ll actually look like. This is a great way to manage expectations and help candidates feel more in control.

    2.    The mock viva

    My supervisor offered me a mock viva. This is a really good opportunity to go through example questions with someone who knows your work pretty well. I’m afraid I spent most of it stressing about potentially going through Hell-viva again, but I guess it was better to have the wobbly in the mock than in the actual viva itself.

    3.    Practice questions

    I think these were the most useful thing of all. There are plenty of websites with example viva questions on, which tend to be quite generic, but are great at helping you stand back and put your work in context. This is particularly useful when you’ve been very close to the detail for so long. The list here should help.

    4.    Exercise

    There’s nothing like exercise to help me feel positive and relaxed, so on the morning of the viva, I got up super-early to allow me to spend an hour or so at the gym. I did some pretty intense treadmill intervals, and they did the job. I arrived at the viva feeling ready to tackle whatever got thrown at me.

    What was less useful was reading through the thesis. By this point, you actually know it much better than you realise, having lived it for the last several years. If you get picked up on very fine details such as a particular statistical calculation, you’ll have to refer to the copy in front of you to see the exact numbers anyway.

    The one benefit of reading through was to spot the typos. It felt like there were absolutely loads, although for the size of document, apparently my list wasn’t too bad! It’s good practice to take the list into the viva, and the corrections you’ve spotted will be added to those that the examiners come up with. They also said they hadn’t noticed any of the errors I’d picked up.

    So, the outcome. I came out with minor corrections, which was a big relief! It took a couple more months to get everything signed off, more due to procedures than the amount of work, which wasn’t very much. You can read the final thesis as lodged in the library here