Playing A/Part: investigating the experiences of autistic girls through drama, interactive media and participatory arts.

Lead Research Organisation: University of Kent
Department Name: Sch of Arts


Playing A/Part is an interdisciplinary collaboration (drama, media arts, psychology) working with autistic girls (aged 11-18) and women to investigate the female face of autism through innovative, creative and participatory approaches pioneered by members of the research team. Improvisatory performance and interactive media are used as creative tools for articulating the lived experience of the female autistic community. The project responds to calls for more research and novel methods to document the distinctive experiences and characteristics of this under-represented group. As Sarah Wild states, headteacher at Limpsfield Grange (the only UK specialist school for autistic girls and a project partner):

'We're trying to get politicians to understand that this is a group who are massively under-diagnosed, but also that there are not the right services out there for them or the awareness, including GPs who don't understand what female autism looks like.'

Autistic women describe experiences of invisibility, masking their identities and "faking it" to be socially compliant. This results in high levels of anxiety, which impact on mental well-being, self-confidence and self-worth, leading to increased rates of depression, self-harm and eating disorders. There is, therefore, a need to support self-development and well-being in autistic females, especially during adolescence; a crucial time for identity formation during which autistic difficulties and differences can become more pronounced in the face of increasing socio-emotional pressures.

Through its interdisciplinary and participatory approach, the project will produce new knowledge about the female autistic experience that will be of value to the autism community, the creative industries, education, health and social care. This has the potential to inform the development of more female-sensitive diagnostic measures and services, highlighting the creative contribution of this community and challenging existing stereotypes. The project aims to fully engage the female autistic community in the research about them and to transform public understanding and awareness. To achieve this we will:

1. Co-create a programme of participatory arts workshops and creative toolkit, enabling autistic female adolescents to articulate their lived experiences and identities;
2. Conduct a specially designed survey amongst a) autistic women and b) autism experts to achieve consensus on commonly shared features of female autism.
3. Deliver and trial a programme of participatory arts workshops in different educational settings;
4. Evaluate the efficacy of participatory arts workshops to enhance self-perception, mental well-being and self-esteem using new and established measures;
5. Co-produce and test the feasibility of a participatory arts peer mentoring model in educational and community settings, involving autistic girls and women in collaborative and creative activities;

6. Engage the female autistic community in participatory research and dissemination;

7. Create an international interdisciplinary participatory research network

8.Disseminate research findings to stakeholders and the wider public through a programme of impact and public engagement.

The project builds on the team's previous work exploring autistic identities, perception and creativity, and on methods successfully trialled in a pilot programme of participatory arts workshops using drama and interactive media to explore how female autistic students perceived and engaged with their environments and each other. A public engagement programme includes symposia, roundtables, films, educational resources, a media installation, performances and interactive website. Through this collaboration across disciplinary boundaries, using established and novel methods, we will produce outcomes that are more than the sum of their parts, transforming the face of autism research through female autistic voices.

Planned Impact

As the female autism community are under-represented and under diagnosed, they are core beneficiaries for this research. Moreover, autism funding has traditionally prioritised causes and intervention rather than education and support. There is little research dedicated to improving physical and mental well-being in autism or into how schools and services can contribute. Hence the development of tools and evaluation methods for working with autistic female teenagers could be flexibly applied in a range of educational and non-academic contexts, and would benefit a range of potential user groups:

1. Autistic individuals: direct beneficiaries are 150 participants (autistic female teenagers) their families and carers; 6 steering group members, autistic HE theatre students.

2.Members of the autistic community (autistic people, families and carers)

3. Educators (direct beneficiaries are participating and networked schools); all teachers engaged in educating autistic girls/teaching assistants/educational psychologists/speech therapists; school counselling services; Local Education Authorities, schools accommodating female autistic pupils (mainstream, special, units).

4.Health and social care services: Paediatricians, GPs, clinical psychologists and psychiatrists, mental health service providers and commissioners; family therapists; local authority social care employees, police and probation services whose work brings them into contact with autistic girls and women.

5.Arts professionals and the creative industries: conservatoires and HE theatre departments; performing arts professionals working with autistic women; practitioners in applied and social theatre; arts centres associated with the project.

6. Local communities; the general public and policymakers.

The primary beneficiaries (autistic students and steering group) are included as researchers, participants, advisors and practitioners, taking their perspectives and needs into account in planning, delivery and outcomes. They will benefit from activities designed to enhance agency, creative expression and mental well-being. For the steering group, the project affords opportunities for community networking and career development. The autistic community would benefit from increased understanding by others of how female autism is experienced potentially informing structures for education, support and employment, particularly in the creative industries. For families and carers of participants, the benefits could translate into improved interpersonal relations and family well-being.

Other beneficiaries are health professionals such as GPs, clinicians involved in diagnosis and mental health practitioners as the research will increase knowledge and understanding of what female autism looks like (leading to earlier recognition) and how to support this community. This may reduce mental health problems and improve education and employment outcomes for autistic women. Education professionals will also benefit from new opportunities for training and access to the project's educational resources. The research findings on female autism in different educational settings and the impact of creative practices on well-being can inform curriculum development and pedagogy.

As the interests and capabilities of autistic females may lead them to pursue creative careers, arts professionals and educators will benefit from the project's potential to inform training and to make recommendations to improve the prospects for this population to realise their potential for a creative autistic life. The project's activities in community venues contribute to a wider community and public engagement programme with the ambition to change public perception of autism and gender so that autistic females are recognised and supported to benefit from employment, social relationships and community inclusion as keys to quality of life


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Pavarini G (2021) Ethical issues in participatory arts methods for young people with adverse childhood experiences. in Health expectations : an international journal of public participation in health care and health policy

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Shaughnessy N (2020) Acting in a World of Difference: Drama, Autism, Gender in Biblioteca Teatrale

Title Film Animation: I Feel Different 
Description Film Animation based on research from phase 1 of the project (interviews and workshops). The film explores the experiences of autistic girls and women in their own words. Based wholly on interviews, writings and original artwork by autistic individuals, it provides an insight into the intensity and sensory reality of experiencing life differently.Through animated scenes of everyday autistic life, autistic girls and women give voice to their unique sense of being in the world, playing roles, being outsiders, seeking safety, finding community and wanting to be accepted for who they are: sometimes fragile, sometimes inspiring, always profoundly human. The film is a Calling the Shots production for the Arts and Humanities Research Council supported by BBC Arts Culture in Quarantine. 
Type Of Art Film/Video/Animation 
Year Produced 2020 
Impact The film was very positively received by the autistic community. It has been reported that it has led some viewers to recognise themselves or their daughters and to seek diagnosis. 
Title Short film: Iterative film 1 
Description Short film by autistic film artist Sonia Boue emerging from the practical workshops 
Type Of Art Artwork 
Year Produced 2019 
Impact This is ongoing and will evaluated at a later stage. 
Description Arts and Humanities in Quarantine Public Engagement Urgency Call
Amount £19,395 (GBP)
Organisation Arts & Humanities Research Council (AHRC) 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 06/2020 
End 10/2020
Description UKRI COVID-19 Grant Extension Allocation (CoA)
Amount £15,920 (GBP)
Organisation United Kingdom Research and Innovation 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 03/2021 
End 09/2021
Title Labyrinth learning 
Description Specially designed resources using labyrinth floor cloths and finger labyrinth thinking tools as a novel method for working with neurodivergent students. Autistic learners process information differently and the labyrinth approach offers opportunities for creative reflection whilst thinking and walking. It is still being experimented with but there is some evidence that it also helps students with hyper mobility and ADHD. 
Type Of Material Improvements to research infrastructure 
Year Produced 2020 
Provided To Others? No  
Impact This is still emerging. Autistic students show higher levels of creative engagement when using the labyrinth; they find it helps them to process ideas, creates focus and reduces anxiety. 
Title Playing A/Part Online 
Description Educational Online Resources for researching identity and gender with autistic participants. Using "smartscripts" as structure for workshops hosted on Prospero, a specialist platform for creativity and pedagogy. Currently this is only available to participants and we are continuing to develop it this year. In the future it will be adapted to be publicly available as an educational resource. 
Type Of Material Improvements to research infrastructure 
Year Produced 2021 
Provided To Others? No  
Impact not yet applicable 
Description Limpsfield Grange School 
Organisation Limpsfield Grange School - Oxted
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution Delivery of workshop programme for autistic students designed to enhance mental well-being and creativity; training for teachers to disseminate practice; access to autistic artists and community representatives to enhance understanding and awareness of the autistic experience and neurodivergent creativity.
Collaborator Contribution Consultations with senior staff; use of facilities for workshops; use of supervising staff; participation in interviews, Delphi survey and meetings of the Advisory Board
Impact BBC TV News Feature: 6/12/2018
Start Year 2018
Description CPD Training/Workshops for teachers 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Schools
Results and Impact Over 100 teachers attended two training days, led by the Playing A/Part project team, at St Anselm's Catholic School (3/10/19), Canterbury and Simon Langton Grammar School for Girls Canterbury (5/2/19). These professional training events promoted changes in attitude and empathetic responses towards those with autism, giving teachers practical strategies to engage pupils through creativity in new ways.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
Description Conference festival 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Other audiences
Results and Impact A diverse range of people engaged with this event with approximately 40% of delegates from the autistic community. It was an inclusive conference, attracting attention on social media for its innovative organisation and content in terms of spaces, accessibility and activities. These included practical workshops, performances, films, exhibitions of creative artefacts as well as panel presentations. There was a creative facilitator and a conference poet .
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
Description Film animation: I feel Different 
Form Of Engagement Activity A broadcast e.g. TV/radio/film/podcast (other than news/press)
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Industry/Business
Results and Impact I feel different is a film animation based on the project's research. It was funded through the Arts in Quarantine urgent public engagement call and is part of the "Animated Thinking" series. It was screened on 20 November 2020 via BBCI Player and will be hosted on this platform for 9 months.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2021
Description Playing A/Part - Meridian TV News 
Form Of Engagement Activity A broadcast e.g. TV/radio/film/podcast (other than news/press)
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Media (as a channel to the public)
Results and Impact Playing A/Part featured as part of Meridian TV news segment. The journalists joined the research team in a school where they were working with autistic/neurodiverse girls. This provided a showcase for the project and gave both the creative practitioners and the girls an opportunity to discuss the positive effects of the project on their wellbeing.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019