Professor Elina Kontu from Tampere University is a true multi-talent. She has a PhD in Special needs education, licentiate in Educational sciences, and she is a docent for Special needs in early childhood education. In addition, she is also a music- and psychotherapist and an early childhood teacher.
During her early years of research Kontu studied the theory of mind in autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Nowadays her research direction is more on the side of development of interaction- and thinking skills, as well as learning and mental health related themes associated with developmental disabilities.
But before moving forward in the research-theme, it is good to first clarify what is autism?
Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, US describes ASD as follows:
[ASD] is a developmental disability that can cause significant social, communication and behavioral challenges. There is often nothing about how people with ASD look that sets them apart from other people, but people with ASD may communicate, interact, behave, and learn in ways that are different from most other people. The learning, thinking, and problem-solving abilities of people with ASD can range from gifted to severely challenged. Some people with ASD need a lot of help in their daily lives; others need less.
Although our knowledge on the ASD constantly increases and improves, there is still no clear understanding as to what causes it. Rather, there seems to be many causes for the many types of ASD. Research has shown biological, and genetic indicators, as well as environmental factors, which can predispose to ASD.
In addition to discovering the factors behind ASD, researchers and people working with individuals with ASD also have many other challenges to tackle. One of the most important ones is developing the right kind of support for people with ASD and their families, for example help in communication. Due to all the challenges that individuals with ASD, and their families face every day, it is excellent to see multi-disciplinary research groups trying to find solutions to them in new and innovative ways.
Multidisciplinary collaboration aims to create a more inclusive society
ANDANTE research group led by professor Kontu is a model example of such multi-disciplinary approach. The aim of the group is to develop effective routes of rehabilitation and pedagogy, which will improve the quality of life of children, adolescent and adults by improving collaboration between different parties involved in assisting the lives of these individuals. Gathering the latest knowledge on psychology of intellectual disabilities, ASD and neuropsychiatry, as well as producing new knowledge on these topics to be used by the various parties in the field, is at the core of the group’s work.
Professor Kontu’s group hosts 11 researchers and 8 PhD students working towards achieving the goals listed above. In addition, the group also has numerous collaborators from various different fields. The expertise include an impressive array of topics, such as social work, medicine, economics, logopedics, special needs education, music therapy, social-haptic communication (including wearable technology) and early childhood education.
Research also targets the families
It is important to note that the research ANDANTE-group is involved in does not solely focus on individuals with ASD. They also aim to find different modes of operation for the families to help them in their everyday life. Their numerous collaborative projects focus on support and equality of individuals with ASD, intellectual disabilities, and their families in the current day society. Furthermore, the group also wants to find ways to bring out the voices of these individuals – help them, their opinions, wants and needs to be heard.
The research group is also a part of a larger research consortium, IMAGE, which is an EU-funded partnership of five European universities. The project aims to improve the employability of higher education graduates on the autism spectrum by:
- – developing self-advocacy and employability skills in students
- – promoting high-quality support practice in HE professionals
- – developing employer awareness and recruitment practices.
Towards a more equal society
There is still a lot of work to be done for equal society to be a reality, and everyone’s voices to be heard as they should be. However, every research project, such as the ones described above, are each taking steps towards the right direction, by improving experiences of the families on their ability to obtain help and care, as well as the future prospects of individuals with ASD with for example new and improved communication methods.
This week, 28.3.-3.4.2022, is the Autism Awareness-week. You can find more information on this week’s events from the following websiten (in Finnish): Autismitietoisuuden viikko – Autismiliitto