Quick fire questions with ShARL Director, Dr Megan Freeth

December 2020

Why are you taking over as Director of ShARL?

I have been part of ShARL since its launch in 2013 and have worked with ShARL's previous director, Prof Elizabeth Milne since 2009. As Liz has recently taken on the role of Head of Department for Psychology at the University of Sheffield she decided it was time to pass on the baton of ShARL's directorship. I am really excited to be taking this on and am looking forward to continuing the great work that ShARL does.

What is the purpose of the Sheffield Autism Research Lab (ShARL)? 

The goal of ShARL is to have a positive impact on the lives of individuals diagnosed with autism spectrum conditions (ASC) and genetic syndromes via advancements in research. The scope of our research is broad and includes neuroimaging studies aimed at gaining insight into neural and cognitive divergence and applied studies aimed at improving understanding of the lived experience of ASC and genetic syndromes.

How do you decide what research projects to run? 

ShARL doesn't have its own funding source so the projects we can run depend on us acquiring external funding to do so. We are currently running projects funded by The Baily Thomas Charitable Fund and The Children's Hospital Charity (Sheffield). Previously our projects have been funded by the Child Growth Foundation, ESRC, Leverhulme Trust and the British Academy. Our PhD students are funded via a range of different sources including UKRI, University of Sheffield scholarships and international government funding. We are always looking for opportunities to apply to run new projects that are in line with our lab goals and values.

Who are your main external partners?

We work with external organisations and stakeholders as much as possible as it is important to us that our research is of value to the groups involved as participants. In addition to working with individuals, we work with charities and organisations such as the Child Growth Foundation, Sheffield Autistic Society, Autism Plus, the Tatton-Brown Rahman Syndrome Community and Unique. I am also a member of the Sheffield Autism Partnership Board, organised by Sheffield City Council. In relation to our applied clinical work we often work with the Sheffield Adult Autism and Neurodevelopmental Service team (SAANS) and academics in the Clinical Psychology Unit (CPU) at the University of Sheffield.

We seek to gain input from stakeholders (e.g. autistic people or those with genetic syndromes and their family members) at every stage of our projects, from idea conception to project design to details on how they are run, though there are often requirements set by funders or other research standards that we also need to meet. We aim to disseminate our research findings as broadly as possible by organising events, preparing research guides and information leaflets and also via social media.

As well as being Director of ShARL what else do you do in your job?

My job title is Senior Lecturer in Psychology at the University of Sheffield. I teach on our undergraduate Psychology BSc and our MSc in Psychological Research Methods. I also supervise DClinPsy students and PhD students.

What are your hopes for the future of ShARL?

There is so much that I hope ShARL can contribute to, from improving understanding the essence of what it means to be autistic or live with a genetic syndrome, to bringing about change to services and education so that people can be more effectively supported. Stigma and misunderstanding can create huge barriers for people and tackling these things needs immediate action in order to enable people to have the opportunities and life chances they deserve.