Hannah Pickard is one of 4 fellows funded by Autistica at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience as part of our Casting Light on Mental Health project.
What is your research background?
Over the last four years I have completed both an undergraduate BSc degree in Psychology and a master’s degree in Research Methods in Psychology, which have given me a vast amount of research experience to undertake my PhD in autism and mental health.
My research background has focused on exploring the cognitive theories associated with autism (e.g. Theory of Mind, Executive Functions and cognitive processing styles) and how these manifest within the general population. Whilst conducting my research I have had the opportunity to adapt and develop new cognitive tasks and questionnaires, which I have incorporated into my research design to investigate the cognitive theories associated with autism in the general population. In addition to my research experience, I have recently been involved in a study investigating the camouflaging strategies used in social situations by individuals with autism spectrum disorders (ASD). The aim of this study is to operationalise camouflaging strategies and observe the gender differences in the different types and amounts of camouflaging used.
What attracted you to do research into autism and mental health?
Autism is a condition that is very close to my heart. I was particularly attracted to autism and mental health research because I have grown up alongside a brother who has autism and I have seen him struggle with many debilitating mental health issues, including both stress and anxiety. I believe that he and others like him need additional support to help treat and prevent these problems from occurring. I am very passionate about autism and mental health research and feel extremely grateful that I have been given the opportunity to make a positive impact in an area that has significant implications for life satisfaction for many individuals on the spectrum.
Tell us a bit more about your brother
My brother’s name is John, he is 28 years old and he was diagnosed with ASD when he was 3 and a half. My brother lives at home with my parents and we have a good sibling relationship. We both share a love of video games and John likes to keep me up to date with all the new games he is playing, particularly if he thinks it’s something I would also like. For the last two years running we have had a fantastic time going to the Euro gamer convention here in London, where you have the opportunity to try out upcoming games and compete in competitions for prizes. In addition to sharing a love for games, we also both enjoy going to theme parks, watching movies and finding new quirky places to eat in London.
John is an adult with high functioning autism who is very bright, often extremely funny (although half of the time he doesn’t realise!) and most of all caring. He can be very social within our family dynamic, but outside of this he does not seek any social interaction and much prefers doing things alone. Over the past year my brother’s life has been very stable and he is looking forward to potentially moving from a temporary to a permanent job role within the company that currently employs him. However, in the past my brother has experienced a great deal of anxiety and stress throughout his time at university, attending job interviews, socialising within his job role and dealing with the change of finishing temporary job contracts and going back to being unemployed and having an unstructured routine. The lack of support my brother has received throughout this process has put a lot of stress on my whole family and particularly my parents, who try their hardest to support and help him during these difficult times. Despite the periods of uncertainty my family have gone through, I am extremely happy to say that my brother is doing exceptionally well and is becoming more and more independent every day.
What are you working on with Autistica?
I am currently working alongside Autistica to help promote and bring awareness to the research investigating autism and mental health. I am looking forward to working with them very closely in the future to build a better understanding of the triggers and mechanism behind the high prevalence rates of mental health issues (including stress and anxiety) among individuals with ASD.
I have also recently signed up to the Abseil for Autism event where I will be abseiling down the ArcelorMittal Orbit at the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. I am extremely excited to join the Autistica team and take part in this fantastic experience to raise money for autism research.
What will your average day involve?
My average day as a research fellow at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience (IoPPN) will involve me developing my knowledge in the area of autism and mental health and applying this knowledge to design my own research studies. On a daily basis I will be co-ordinating with my supervisor, colleagues and individuals with autism and their families to make the greatest impact I can in the area of mental health research.
Autistica put’s families at the heart of everything they do, and this is the reason why we are embarking upon research into mental health: their top priority. How will you involve families and individuals in your research and promote the findings to the wider autism community?
I think it is extremely important to involve families and individuals with autism in my research as much as possible, as these are the people who will be directly affected by my research. To further involve them in my research and to promote my findings to a wider population I plan to create a website where I can share all of my current research project ideas and findings, as well as collect valuable information from those who would like to have any input throughout my time as a research fellow.
What impact do you think your research will have on people with autism and mental health issues?
I hope that my research will have a very positive impact on individuals with autism and their families, as both are affected by how debilitating mental health issues can be on a daily basis. My research will focus on investigating the cognitive underpinnings of mental health problems in this population and will give us a better understanding of how to adapt or create new effective interventions to prevent and treat these symptoms. I am confident that my research will give us the knowledge to be able to provide support for those who are dealing with mental health issues on top of the behavioural difficulties already present in autism. In the long-term I hope my research will help improve the lives of these individuals and their families.
Can you recommend any previous studies that might be relevant for readers who are interested in autism and /or mental health research?
If you are interested in learning more about autism and/or mental health research I recommend taking a look at the following articles:
General background of autism:
Happé, F., Ronald, A., & Plomin, R. (2006). Time to give up on a single explanation for autism. Nature neuroscience, 9(10), 1218-1220.
Happé, F., & Ronald, A. (2008). The ‘fractionable autism triad’: a review of evidence from behavioural, genetic, cognitive and neural research. Neuropsychology review, 18(4), 287-304.
Mental health in autism:
Simonoff, E., Pickles, A., Charman, T., Chandler, S., Loucas, T., & Baird, G. (2008). Psychiatric disorders in children with autism spectrum disorders: prevalence, comorbidity, and associated factors in a population-derived sample. Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, 47(8), 921-929.
White, S. W., Oswald, D., Ollendick, T., & Scahill, L. (2009). Anxiety in children and adolescents with autism spectrum disorders. Clinical psychology review, 29(3), 216-229.
When you’re not working, what do you enjoy doing?
When I am not working I like to travel as often as I can and experience new cultures and cuisines from all over the world. I love spending time with my family and friends and going to the cinema, music events and exhibitions. I also swim regularly and am enjoying playing with my newest house member: Koto the cat.
Find out more about our mental health project here.