Learning Disability Today
Supporting professionals working in learning disability and autism services

Research to have on your radar: April

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This article summarises some key pieces of research in the learning disability and autism field over recent weeks. This includes studies on the benefits of exercise, autism training in the workplace, understandings of ableism, and autistic burnout. 

Scoping review highlights need for more research into the social benefits of exercise initiatives for people with learning disabilities

A scoping review published in the Journal of Applied Research in Intellectual Disabilities has examined the initiatives used to facilitate the inclusion of people with a learning disability in community-based sporting and recreation activities.

Research shows that low levels of physical activity are consistently reported among people with learning disabilities, yet little research has looked into the impact of physical activity on social inclusion. The authors therefore wanted to address this research gap.

In total, eight articles were included in the study, with six overarching initiatives identified. These were:

  1. building knowledge, awareness and attitudinal change
  2. organisational alliances/partnerships
  3. relationship-building
  4. modifications/adaptions to activities/environment
  5. organisational policy
  6. engagement with people with disability.

Ristevski at al found that co-participation in teams and events can promote positive attitudes towards people with learning disabilities, however,  the authors did not find consistent evidence for the development of relationships outside of the sporting, recreational or leisure events.

The authors conclude that there is limited research on this topic and they call for more longitudinal studies to build a better understanding of the difference between physical access and social inclusion.

They conclude: “Disability awareness training is not enough to change negative attitudes or unconscious bias towards people with intellectual disability. Policies of equity and diversity, and partnerships between sporting and recreational providers together with organisational leaders can be a vehicle for promoting positive attitudes and representing disability positively rather than focusing on a person’s inability.

“It is therefore essential to change attitudes towards people with intellectual disability by recognising that all people can participate in physical activities. Implementing physical literacy into practice will refocus attention away from the disability itself to encourage and promote positive physical activity throughout life.”

Two people in a yoga class together

Autism training in the workplace should be implemented as part of a ‘wider package’ of support, study suggests

Employers’ understanding of autism can pose a significant hurdle for autistic individuals seeking employment.

A recent study assessed the impact of an online training programme, Understanding Autism in the Workplace, developed by Ambitious about Autism, on improving employers’ knowledge about autism and their commitment to fostering inclusion at work.

In the UK, the employment rate among autistic people is less than a third (29%) compared to roughly three quarters (75.7%) of the general population. Research shows a lack of understanding about autism can be a key barrier, so the authors set out to evaluate the effect of autism training in the workplace.

The study, published in Neurodiversity, involved 129 employers from 22 UK organisations who underwent this training with either an autistic (45) or non-autistic (84) trainer.

Surveys conducted before and after the training revealed that overall, both autism knowledge and commitment to inclusion in the workplace improved for all participants (both autistic and non-autistic). The researchers say the efficacy of the training may be linked to its development in collaboration with autistic individuals.

However, while group-level outcomes were positive, only a minority of participants (10.1% for autism knowledge, 5.8% for commitment to inclusion in the workplace) experienced significant individual improvements.

The authors say this suggests autism training is beneficial for many, but it may be more effective for certain individuals. They therefore conclude that autism training should not be the only initiative to address barriers to employment for autistic people, but should be part of a “broader package of applied support” for employers.

“Further research is needed to determine what makes training effective at an individual level for subsets of participants, and to provide more reliable verification about its effectiveness by assessing behavioural change in the workplace,” they conclude.Team undertaking research in the office, team meeting

Roughly half of disability professionals do not ‘truly understand’ ableism, research suggests

A new study, published in the Journal of Applied Research in Intellectual Disabilities, has evaluated how disability professionals understand ableism in a bid to provide insight into the production of inequalities.

Ableism is a social process, and the researchers say it is therefore necessary to conduct research examining factors that create, reproduce, and impact ableist ideas and actions.

In total, 347 professionals who work with people with learning and developmental disabilities were asked about their demographic, the types of disability language they use, and finally, to define ableism.

The researchers then condensed the answers into content-related categories. They identified various themes regarding how disability professionals understood ableism, including discrimination, differential treatment, individualisation, norms and othering, ableist language, microaggressions, and systems and environments.

During the analysis, the researchers found it was not uncommon for the disability professionals to be ableist, say ableist things, and express misconceptions about disability. This included avoiding disability, using ableist language, framing disability as in/ability, centring people without disabilities, ignoring invisible disabilities, believing only people with disabilities have bias, and believing ableism does not exist.

The researchers found that in total, less than half of disability professionals “truly knew what ableism was”. In fact, there was often a mismatch between what they believed they knew about ableism and what their definitions indicated they knew — they often believed they understood ableism more than they did.

“As a result, disability professionals may dismiss and/or downplay people with disabilities’ experiences with ableism and may be more likely to individualise people with disabilities’ experiences and attribute them to the person rather than oppression, discrimination, and unjust systems,” the authors say. “Moreover, by virtue of not understanding ableism, disability professionals are likely to not recognise when they perpetrate ableism.”

Friedman, VanPuymbrouck and Gordon therefore conclude that the analysis points to the need for a “deeper understanding” through research exploring how ableism among professionals may impact the supports they provide.

If disability professionals do not understand ableism and its influence on interactions, relationships, environments, systems, and structures, they will continue to “reinforce ableism, especially unconsciously, and contribute to the inequities people with disabilities face,” they conclude.

Man in a wheelchair on the move in office building.

Study evaluates two screening tools designed to measure autistic burnout

A new study, published in Autism Research, has evaluated two screening tools to better understand autistic burnout and how it is measured.

In total, 238 autistic adults aged between 18 and 75 years were included in the study (71% female). More than two thirds (69%) reported having experienced autistic burnout at least one, and nearly half (46%) had experienced burnout four or more times.

One screening tool, known as the AASPIRE Autistic Burnout Measure (ABM), has 27 items. This is a new measure of autistic burnout which asks participants to rate a range of symptoms experienced over the past three months compared to what they consider typical for them.

The other screening tool, The Copenhagen Burnout Inventory (CBI) measures burnout across three domains: personal burnout, work-related burnout and client-related burnout (working with people).

Analyses were conducted in two parts: part one evaluated the psychometric properties of the burnout measures, and their efficacy as screening tools for autistic burnout, and part two examined the relationship between autistic burnout and other variables.

Their analysis showed that the ABM is a “reliable preliminary screening tool for autistic burnout”. However, the tool would “greatly benefit from further validation” with a larger sample of autistic people, especially males and gender diverse individuals, and those with higher support needs.

When the researchers looked at how these measures related to other feelings like depression, anxiety, and stress, they found strong correlations. However, “unexpectedly”, they also found that burnout measures were only moderately linked to camouflaging (or masking) and their overall sense of wellbeing.

While the study suggests some overlap between autistic burnout and depression, the authors say it “remains to be seen whether autistic burnout could more accurately be considered a form of ‘autistic depression’.”

The researchers therefore concluded that both sets of questions are valid screening tools for identifying the signs of autistic burnout, especially burnout which causes the person to feel emotionally drained.

However, they say testing a larger and more diverse autistic sample is now required in order to better understand autistic burnout and how this is connected to depression and masking.

Sad girl sits on the floor with tangled thoughts. The unhappy child has confused thinking. The depressed adolescent has memory problems. Concept of mental disorder or illness. Vector illustration

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