Dr Catherine Crompton is a research psychologist at the Patrick Wild Centre, University of Edinburgh. Her research explores autistic communication and relationships, and she is particularly interested in communication between autistic people and how that may differ from interactions between autistic and non-autistic people. She is currently leading two projects exploring options for autistic peer support networks, one based in mainstream secondary schools for autistic young people, and the other as a post-diagnostic support option for autistic adults.
She also consults on projects linking participatory design and big data in mental health, ensuring that large scale studies include the voices of those with lived experience. She is a leader in participatory research and was awarded Autistica’s Public Engagement Award for her outstanding contribution to research with autistic community involvement. She was previously on the committee of the Scottish Autism Research Group and has co-ordinated several research, practice and community events in Scotland.
Autistic young people in mainstream schools often experience low levels of peer social support, have negative perceptions of their differences, and feel disconnected from their school community. Autism-specific peer support has been suggested as a framework that may enhance wellbeing. We know that for autistic adults, engagement with other autistic people can reduce suicidality and that pride in being neurodivergent is related to lower depression symptoms. To date, no studies have examined autistic peer support or autism community membership in younger populations.
We examined whether autistic young people felt receptive to the idea of autism-specific peer support, and if so, how they would like it to work within their school setting. We interviewed 13 autistic recent school leavers, discussing school experiences, support needs, peer engagement, and views on autism-specific peer support.
Thematic analysis was applied, and three themes identified: (1) flexibility in format and focus; (2) centring the principles of neurodiversity and an ethos of inclusivity; and (3) the benefits and challenges of embedding peer support in the wider school community.
Our findings suggest that autistic young people are keen to engage with autism-specific peer support in mainstream school and this kind of support may be a positive experience, however thoughtful planning and support is required to ensure accessibility and comfort.