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Award for system that helps professionals spot signs of child autism

4 June 2019

People's Choice award winners 2019
Winners of the People’s Choice 2019: (left to right) Sara Harvey, National Strategic Lead for Autism, Welsh Local Government Association; Dr Catherine Jones and Professor Susan Leekham, School of Psychology, with Education Minister Kirsty Williams

A system that helps professionals spot the signs of autism in children has been crowned ‘People’s Choice’ at Cardiff University’s Innovation and Impact (I&I) Awards.

Researchers from the School of Psychology worked with Welsh Government, the Welsh Local Government Association and Public Health Wales to develop SIGNS – an acronym to help frontline specialists recognise autistic behaviours in children.

The partnership polled 209 out of 460 ‘People’s Choice’ votes in the University’s annual social media competition, giving it a 45% share.

Cardiff University researchers, led by Professor Sue Leekam and Dr Catherine Jones, teamed up with Welsh Government-funded National Autism Team (formerly National ASD Development Team), hosted by the Welsh Local Government Association (WLGA), working in close partnership with Public Health Wales.

Professor Sue Leekam and Dr Sarah Carrington, School of Psychology, had originally identified and published a set of essential signposting items from an assessment known as the Diagnostic Interview for Social and Communication Disorders (DISCO).

They worked with Johanna Manikiza, formerly National ASD Development team, to create  SIGNS – a way for frontline professionals to identify and understand autistic behaviours in children, where:

S = Social Interaction and verbal communication
I = Imagination
G = Gestures or non-verbal communication
N = Narrow range of interests, routines and repetitive behaviours
S = Sensory responses

The team developed two key resources that the WLGA’s National Autism Team now provide to clinical and educational professionals: posters featuring the SIGNS of autism, and ‘The Birthday Party’, an 18-minute training film based on SIGNS. The success of the film in partnership with Sarah Harvey and Wendy Thomas (WLGA National Autism Team), has led to its use in translations in four European languages and to autism training across the world.

The Awards took place at the National Museum of Wales, Cardiff, on 3 June.

Welcoming the People’s Choice accolade, Professor Leekam and Dr Jones said: “We are delighted to have won this award with overwhelming public support. More than a thousand professionals and parents helped to shape the materials we produced. We thank them and we thank our government, business, charity and university partners who worked with us across five countries. We want autism signs to be understood and responded to by every sector of society and winning this award brings us closer to that goal.”

For the first time, the winning People’s Choice vote was cast by a member of Cardiff University staff. Dr Cassy Ashman, B.R.A.I.N. Unit Manager at the Neuroscience & Mental Health Research Institute, wins an iPad Mini.

Dr Ashman’s winning entry stated: “I have a younger brother with Autism and have previously worked with autism charities including Resources for Autism. This is an issue close to my heart and I am well aware of the difficulties in diagnosis, which can take years, yet is vital for accessing appropriate services for the child which can be life changing. Anything to promote identifying the signs of autism in children can only help speed up getting help to the child and their families sooner.”

Cardiff University Vice-Chancellor Professor Colin Riordan said: “The breadth and depth of research that helped to shape SIGNS, coupled with its promotion and adoption internationally, make it a fitting winner in this our 21st annual showcase of outstanding innovations with global impact. The awards demonstrate the quality, ingenuity and determination of Cardiff University researchers in developing world-class partnerships.”

Dr Bethany Keenan, Post-doctoral Research Associate for the Head of School of Engineering, won the evening’s newest award: Future Innovation Leader. The accolade celebrates rising stars of innovation at Cardiff University and recognizes individuals who have played an active role in the development of the impact of their research.

Bethany said “I’m delighted to win this award, which has been achieved largely thanks to colleagues at CUBRIC and my collaborations with clinical and industry partners. I have a passion for turning research into products and processes which can benefit society. I’m really pleased that my work has been recognised through this award and I hope that by pursuing excellence in my research, I will inspire others to do the same."

The I&I Awards also celebrated three other winning finalists:

The Innovation and Impact Awards are organised by the Cardiff University Innovation Network, which has promoted business-university interactions for more than 20 years.

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