The projects within the Academic Collaborative Centre for Autism are participatory in nature. Within our centre, the autism community is involved in all phases of the research: in the determination of research priorities, in the selection of projects, in the development of the research design and the instruments that are to be used, in the data collection, in the interpretation of results and in the reporting and dissemination of the findings. In this way we ensure that our research is and remains relevant for autistic individuals.
Our academic collaborative centre is a network where different actors – autistic individuals and their family members, professionals, policy makers and researchers – collaborate closely inspired by their own expertise to set up and conduct practice-oriented research. Both experiences from practice and scientific research make an important contribution within our academic collaborative centre. Through mutual exchange of knowledge and experiences, cross-pollination is created and the connection between research and practice is stimulated. In this way, research is relevant and scientific knowledge find its way to practice more easily. Within practice organisations people are becoming more aware of the importance of methodical and evidence-based work. In addition, organisations learn to perform research in order to improve quality.
Research on support
The Academic Collaborative Centre for Autism focuses specifically on the further development, evaluation and improvement of support for autistic individuals and their network. Support refers to different ways of creating awareness, prevention, guidance and intervention, that range from preventive measures, apps or other technological applications, to short or long-term support or intervention programs for co-occurring conditions. This support should aim to improve participation opportunities in society. We mainly focus on support that is currently being used in practice, but has not yet or insufficiently been investigated. In addition, we strive for evaluation of the applicability and effectiveness of support that has proven effective in international research in the context of Flanders. When people in practice have experienced that something works, we want to substantiate this further and investigate whether we can demonstrate the effect in a more objective way. And if so, we aim to investigate what exactly makes it work or how it works. It is also important to learn more about what works for whom. We want to spread this knowledge about support and make it freely accessible, for example by sharing information on effective support and services on our website.
We use a methodical framework for practice-based research into support and services, which is called ‘the effect ladder’ (van Yperen, Veerman & Bijl, 2017).
Through this effect ladder, it is possible to determine the current level of evidence for specific support or services. This provides an indication of which research activities are required to further develop the support and/or to demonstrate its effectiveness. The first steps on the effect ladder are not always easy to take, because support and services are often complex and sometimes difficult to make explicit. A support program often consists of several components and is implemented in different ways that depend on the setting, the professional and the client. However, when the program is insufficiently described, further scientific research into the support or service is of no use. The results would then be meaningless and it would not be possible for support to be implemented in the same way by others or for research to be replicated. It is therefore important to align research activities with the current strength of evidence and to continuously expand the level of evidence for the efficacy of the support. Research at the first steps of the effect ladder, such as the development of clear guidelines or a manual, investigating why support works or whether objectives have been achieved, is often relevant to practice. Insights from this research can also help to adjust the support and services, if necessary.