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January 9th, 2017

Autism through an Arts Lens: Comments on PSSRU’s LSE Literary Festival Session


Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Blog Editor

January 9th, 2017

Autism through an Arts Lens: Comments on PSSRU’s LSE Literary Festival Session


Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

by PSSRU organising team

Autism through an Arts Lens takes place on Wednesday 22 February, 7.00-8.30pm in the Sheikh Zayed Theatre, New Academic Building, LSE. This event is free and open to all. Tickets will be released on Tuesday 31 January.

Over the last week we have received some useful comments and queries on our session on Autism through an Arts Lens which is part of LSE’s Literary Festival. This event aims to explore the quality of portrayals of autism in the arts, and will feature a panel of speakers followed by audience discussion.

Here we provide some background to the event and responses to those comments. We welcome further comments and will update this blog as needed.


Although LSE does not teach arts or music there is a vibrant cultural side to the School – from lunchtime concerts to exhibitions, along with an annual Literary Festival (

The Personal Social Services Research Unit (PSSRU) is a research unit of approximately 40 staff carrying out research in a wide range of social care, mental health, public health and other areas. PSSRU’s research is fully funded from external research grants from bodies such as the Department of Health, European Commission, Economic and Social Research Council and a number of charities. PSSRU has particular expertise in economic evaluations in social care and mental health; a lot of research has been undertaken since 1974 (at LSE from 1996) on the cost-effectiveness of care and support services, funding arrangements, organisational arrangements and preventive strategies. PSSRU’s research has provided evidence to underpin developments in policy and practice discussions, feeding into Government Green and White Papers, Parliamentary debates, evidence and advice to Parliamentary Select Committees and other channels.

Our past work on autism has included a focus on economic impacts to support the case for greater investment of resources into services and support. We continue to work with charities such the Steve Shirley Foundation, Research Autism, Autistica and the National Autistic Society. Our current research includes studies of specialist autism teams, drama therapy and autism, and sensory processing difficulties. We are also working on the National Autism Project, using research evidence to argue for better services and support arrangements, and greater research investment.

PSSRU and the LSE’s Literary Festival

Over the last four years, PSSRU has organised a session as part of the LSE’s annual Literary Festival to explore arts and literature in areas relevant to our research. Our first session focused broadly on the impact of arts on health, and our subsequent sessions looked at whether arts and literature can improve the general public’s understanding of dementia and mental health, and the impact of arts on mental health.

This year we are focusing on autism, particularly how realistically autism and the experiences of autistic people and their families are portrayed in the arts and literature. The focus is particularly on literature, movies and arts that have a wide reach and have the potential to increase awareness and understanding of autism.

Autistic panel speaker

Due to advertising deadlines, information about the event was published as part of the LSE Literary Festival’s online programme at the end of December.

PSSRU events generally include three speakers and are chaired by our Director, Professor Martin Knapp. Details of the two confirmed speakers – Emma Claire Sweeney and Jem Lester – were included online. Details of the third speaker (an autistic artist) were not included online as arrangements had not been finalised. It would have been inappropriate to include details of any speakers until all arrangements had been confirmed. Likewise, we did not feel it was appropriate to rush the third panellist for a confirmation in time for the publication deadline. As soon as all arrangements for the third panellist have been confirmed we will update the listing and publicity.

In general we involve three people in panel discussions to ensure each speaker has enough time to articulate their views, and that there is plenty of time available for audience discussion, which is an integral part of these events.

Following helpful comments over the last week, we have now approached a second autistic panellist to join the event, meaning we will have a total of four speakers, with a chair. We will confirm details as soon as we can.

We understand that the initial listing seemed to suggest we were not including any autistic people in the event or discussion, and we apologise for this misunderstanding. We had no intention to run the event without autistic speakers or engagement of autistic people through audience discussion.

Representativeness of the panel

This event aims to use examples from literature and art to explore the quality of portrayals of autism. We chose speakers based partially on the prominence of their work and their contribution (either as a family member or as an autistic person) to the general public’s awareness of autism.

This is not to exclude arts or literature produced by autistic people. As discussed above, in the limited space of a 90-minute event there will be more of a focus on arts and literature that are widely accessible to a general public. These are often the portrayals (either of an autistic person or of the experiences of a family member) that are likely to be the basis on which a lay person will understand autism. That is not to say those portrayals are necessarily accurate, indeed this will be a key discussion point of the session, along with how any misrepresentations can be addressed (acknowledging that individual experiences of autism will be different). It may be that these channels are dominated by neurotypical authors, artists and writers; another question for discussion may then be how we develop or promote works by autistic people – while recognising that neurotypical authors or artists describing autism based on their personal experiences have useful contributions to make too. The comments and thoughts we have received so far very helpfully support this discussion and we look forward to them being raised at the event.

The Chair

This event is chaired by Professor Martin Knapp, director of PSSRU. In line with LSE’s freedom of speech policy, the chair moderates the event but remains neutral and takes no active part in the discussion. Martin will also provide an introduction to the event.

Format of the event

Speakers have up to 15 minutes each to provide their comments and thoughts on how arts and literature portray autism from their individual perspectives, and then we will open up to audience discussion.

Where people will not be able to attend on the day but have questions or comments they would like raised they can be tweeted using #LSELitFest or emailed through to Where time allows we will raise these questions at the event. If we run out of time, we will add those questions/comments to an online summary of the event to support further online discussion.

Target audience

This event is free and open to all those who are interested in attending. The event allows us space to have a discussion about portrayals of autism and contribute to ongoing discussions in this area.

Books by autistic people

We received a suggestion to include a display or sales of books by autistic people. We would be very happy to arrange this. Our book suppliers can make books available for sale. We will provide them with a list of the books we have from the comments and tweets received so far; any further suggestions can be emailed to us at or tweeted to @PSSRU_LSE.


The LSE venue for this event – the Sheikh Zayed Theatre in the New Academic Building – is accessible. Details can be found at Access Guides to all our venues can be viewed online and further information can also be found in the LSE Events FAQs.

Arrangements will be made to accommodate specific needs as far as possible within the building. A separate quiet room will be available should anyone require this.

LSE aims to ensure that people have equal access to these public events, but please contact if you have any specific access queries or requirements so that arrangements, where possible, can be made for you.


This event is free to attend, but booking is required. E-tickets will be available to book after 10am on Tuesday 31 January via the LSE online store.

We look forward to an interesting discussion on Wednesday 22 February. Our thanks to everyone who has commented on or sent through queries about this event.

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