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Autism awareness month: why research is key to supporting neurodivergent young people

This opinion piece is 7 months old

Today as many as seven children in every classroom are thought to be neurodivergent. That’s a huge number, and yet research shows that we currently understand not even 10% of the human brain and how it works. We don’t think that’s good enough.

I founded Salvesen Mindroom 21 years ago with the aim to support neurodivergent children and young people. As a parent with a neurodivergent child, I recognised how hard it was for families to access helpful information. I also saw that there was a huge gap between science and reality and knew that collaboration between the two was crucial.

Since then, we’ve worked alongside thousands of families, helping to inform and empower people living with learning difficulties by improving education, awareness and understanding of neurodiversity.

Neurodiversity is a far-reaching concept and includes diagnoses such as ADHD, dyslexia, Tourette syndrome and autism, to mention just a few. Often our first step is to help people understand what neurodiversity is, but then the inevitable question parents ask us is ‘where do I start?’ and ‘what do I do?’

Key to our work is the Salvesen Mindroom Research Centre – a collaborative partnership between Salvesen Mindroom and the University of Edinburgh – which brings together some of the brightest minds in Scotland to undertake research projects that improve our knowledge of the spectrum of neurodiversity and the nuances within each diagnosis.

Salvesen Mindroom and SMRC are currently working on a study focused on reducing health inequalities by understanding how autistic people communicate with one another and what forms of communication feel most natural to them. Once peer reviewed, the findings will be used to develop new training resources that will be distributed through Scottish Autism, directly improving the lives of autistic young people.

Another study explores sleep problems and their links to mental ill-health in autistic children and teenagers. That project came from the realisation that the medicines that are usually used to treat sleep problems, such as melatonin, don’t work as effectively for autistic people. No one quite understands why and, undeniably, a good night’s sleep is key to a better quality of life.

Highlighting an alarming gap in existing research, the study intends to find out what causes these issues for autistic people and the wider implication on their mental health in the hope of improving how we treat sleep problems in neurodivergent people.

These are just two projects that we have currently in motion, but both demonstrate the positive change that Salvesen Mindroom is striving for. We only know a tiny fraction of how the brain works –there is still a long way to go, but we are working on it!

Next year, we’re hosting an international event called ‘It Takes All Kinds of Minds’ to bring together more than 50 of the world’s top neurodiversity thinkers and scientists alongside healthcare experts, policy decision-makers, educators, employers, and families. Neurodivergent people will be represented in every part of the programme.

It is only through further research – and identifying ways to link science and reality – that that we will be able to ensure that no mind is left behind. This Autism Awareness Month, I would urge you to join the debate and learn more about neurodiversity by signing up for the conference.

The ‘It Takes All Kinds of Minds’ global conference at the EICC in Edinburgh will run from 13 – 14 March 2023. Early-bird tickets are £225 for personal tickets, £325 for delegates with funding, and £155 for those on reduced incomes. Virtual tickets can be booked at at a discounted rate.

Sophie Dow is Founder of Salvesen Mindroom Centre



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