What is your field of research?
I’m a social scientist by background with a PhD in social policy, and I’ve worked in varied fields over my career, from social sciences to health and medicine via journalism! Most of my post-doctoral research has focused on health with a social justice lens. Over the past decade, I’ve done a lot of research on pregnancy and infant feeding. More recently, I’ve started to combine my research on the maternity period with the study of the experiences of Autistic adults.
How did you become interested in the field?
Being Disabled and coming from a working-class background, it wasn’t so much an interest as necessity that moved me into public health research. I finished my PhD, which was written on experiences of poverty and Disability benefits, in 2011; I was then unable find a role that would allow me to continue that research whilst living in south Wales (to maintain contact with my various medical consultants). Accordingly, I moved sideways into public health research, firstly focused on smoking for a public health charity and later breastfeeding for the NHS. This early research made me realise that so much is expected of mothers and that it can be impossible to live up to society’s ideals. This sprung an interest in feeding babies outside of the home, where my message to the public has consistently been to stop judging mums. In 2019, I was diagnosed as Autistic. This led to me investigating the infant feeding experiences of Autistic people, and to my eight-year Wellcome Trust funded project, which will examine reproductive health for Autistic people “from menstruation to menopause”.
How did you come to work at Swansea University?
I worked with Professor Amy Brown, who’s the director of the Centre for Lactation, Infant Feeding and Translational Research, on an NIHR funded breastfeeding study almost a decade ago. When she had funding for a 12-month senior research officer to join her team, I jumped at the opportunity!
What do you hope to achieve with your research?
Most of my research these days is aimed at improving Autistic adults’ health. This includes identifying where healthcare is inaccessible and proposing solutions that could go some way to removing barriers. I’m working with a brilliant group of researchers and health professionals to establish the Maternity and Autism Research Group, which will signpost people who are pregnant or those supporting pregnant people to high quality research and tools.
In the future, my focus will broaden from the maternity period, and I would really like to make all healthcare more accessible for Autistic people. At the moment, Autistic people are nine times more likely to commit suicide, and we die between 16 and 31 years earlier than our neurotypical peers. I hope my research can go some way to improving Autistic people’s lives with the overarching aim to reduce this horrific health inequality.
What practical applications could your research have?
I’ve provided guidance already on how maternity staff can make services more accessible to Autistic people, and have spoken with policy makers and practitioners about how systems could be improved. My Wellcome Trust study, Autism from menstruation to menopause will involve developing tools and resources to help health professionals better understand Autism and how to provide more accessible care.
What is next for your research?
My new Wellcome Trust study will involve creating a community council of Autistic people to run the study with me. Once that’s done, I will be recruiting 100 Autistic people into the study, who I hope will take part in 10 interviews each (so 1,000 interviews in total!) over the course of five years. This is so we can get a lot of detail to facilitate understandings about every day reproductive health issues, experiences of using healthcare and what Autistic people would like health services and health professionals to do better. Nobody has attempted a study of this size and duration with Autistic adults before, so I’m very excited to get started, although I have no doubt that we will hear many awful stories of bad practice.