Researcher in Spotlight – Sue Fletcher-Watson

In our website feature “Researcher in Spotlight” this month we ask our researcher Sue Fletcher-Watson to tell us a bit more about herself.

Could you give us a quick overview of your background and career so far?

I am a senior research fellow in developmental psychology, and the vast majority of my research has been with and for the autism community. I started out as a PhD student exploring the spontaneous looking patterns of autistic adults viewing photographs. Since then I have worked exclusively in practice-focused departments (Clinical Psychology, Education and now Psychiatry) and have been involved in various projects focused on creating and evaluating innovative supports for users with autism. I have a particular interest in modern mobile technologies as a way to create learning and social opportunities.

How did you become interested in your current field of research?

I started out as a teenager volunteering in a class of children with autism and quickly decided that I wanted to do work which would benefit their lives. More recently, I started to specialise in digital support tools – like co-designed iPad apps for autistic children – because so many people with autism seem to have an affinity and preference for working with tech. It makes sense to me to provide learning and development in a preferred medium if we can.

What are you currently working on and what importance does your work have for autism research?

One group of projects I am very excited about is looking at bilingualism and autism.  In a nutshell, bilingualism seems to enhance the development of various thinking processes which are typically difficult for autistic people.  So we are asking – in a number of studies with adults and children – what about autistic bilinguals?  Do they enjoy the same benefits and if so, should we be thinking about second languages as a way to empower autistic learners?

What do you enjoy most about scientific research?

The variety. I get to do so many different things in a given week and I feel I am constantly being intellectually stretched and challenged.

What do you like about the scientific community in Edinburgh?

Edinburgh hosts world-class science but it is a friendly and collaborative community.  There are not the same internal competitions for resources that I see colleagues experiencing in some other UK Universities. People want you to succeed and they do not see that as being at the expense of their own success.

What is your favourite high tech research tool?

We use eye-trackers in a number of studies.  By recording where someone is looking you can make lots of inferences about their cognitive processes.  For example looking at something for a long time means you find it interesting, but if you look for a long time with many short individual “fixations” then that might also mean you are finding the image hard to comprehend.

What is your favourite low tech research tool?

We have tons of toys in the lab – we video parents playing with their children, as a way to capture real-world social interactions. There is a jack-in-the-box I am particularly fond of.

Where do you usually get the best ideas for your research?

Twitter! Autistic people online are a huge inspiration and constantly help me think in new ways about what are the interesting questions to ask.

What is your hidden talent?

I do a very good impression of a chicken.  But it isn’t that handy at work…

Play-based research in the child development lab