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Home > About Autism > Research and Training > Centre for Practice Innovation > Research into Practice, Practice into Research: learning to speak each other’s language

Research into Practice, Practice into Research: learning to speak each other’s language

Sue Fletcher-Watson

The Centre for Practice Innovation recently launched by Scottish Autism aims to allow “practitioners, researchers and organisations … to learn from each other and contribute to the growing body of knowledge about what constitutes effective autism practice.” At the same time, the Scottish Autism Research Group has recently been re-launched, with one stated goal being to “facilitate links … in order to promote a coherent programme of scientific research which … responds to the requirements of the autism community.”

A match made in heaven? Perhaps. But for these two groups to work together effectively to promote the best quality autism research and practice in Scotland, some fundamental differences need to be acknowledged.

As a researcher, I am convinced of the power of independent, high-quality, research evidence. When commercial providers of supports for people with autism make grandiose claims, without having the appropriate evidence to justify these, it smacks of ignorance at best, exploitation at worst. In contrast, I greatly admire the way Scottish Autism is totally committed to engagement with the research community and to delivering the best service they can to their clients, by drawing on the relevant evidence.

However this process of using research evidence to inform practice is necessarily one of translation.  Let’s take a best case scenario: you are a practitioner, interested in a support model which you think will suit your autistic client, for which there is published evidence from quality trials. These trials, however, only report average data from a group of kids, not information about how it worked for each child individually. Perhaps your client is also very anxious so you’re wondering if you can modify the approach to take account of that. Maybe the published trial measured the effect of three appointments per week, at home, but you only see your client once a week, in school. Maybe most of the kids in the trial were boys but your client is a girl. All of these factors and more mean that the practitioner must interpret the evidence and combine it with their training, knowledge of their client and setting, and their personal experiences to apply it to their practice.

More often, practitioners might like to gather data on an innovative approach they think is promising, where there is no quality published evidence at all.  In sharing this information with the research community, again a process of translation has to occur.  The practitioner must downplay their personal experience and sacrifice flexibility for consistency. Researchers want to read about a rigid application of a system, ideally across a number of cases, or a group. That way they can make the generalised statements which are their bread and butter.

So this brings me to the essential difference, as I see it, between research and practice. Researchers are in the business of making generalisations. Practitioners are concerned with specific, personalised care. This difference needs to be acknowledged and embraced.  It is generalizability which makes research such a powerful tool – a published trial can influence autism practice worldwide, provided practitioners have the confidence and access to translate the work into an approach which works for their client.  Likewise, if correctly framed, examples of good practice in education, health or social care can allow innovative practitioners to share their pioneering skills with others, and inspire new models and concepts of autism.

In working together, I hope that SARG and the CPI can draw on the best aspects of research and practice to deliver results which make a difference to our society. By coming together, sharing information, finding a common language and common ideals I think we can make the translations easier and easier – maybe even learning to speak both the language of practice and of research fluently. 



The Development Autism Research Technology (DART) project explores the uses of technology to support, educate and engage children with Autism.