Are we on the same track? An exploration of educators’, autistic students’ and adults’ conceptual understandings of autism

Author: Vanessa Alexander

Alexander, Vanessa, 2023 Are we on the same track? An exploration of educators’, autistic students’ and adults’ conceptual understandings of autism, Flinders University, College of Education, Psychology and Social Work

Terms of Use: This electronic version is (or will be) made publicly available by Flinders University in accordance with its open access policy for student theses. Copyright in this thesis remains with the author. You may use this material for uses permitted under the Copyright Act 1968. If you are the owner of any included third party copyright material and/or you believe that any material has been made available without permission of the copyright owner please contact with the details.


Billions of dollars are spent globally on autism related research, service provision, education, media campaigns and merchandise. In turn this has created an autism industry whereby autism has become commodified. This qualitative research explored whether the commodification of autism and/or other factors were of influence on educators’ and autistic students’ and adults’ conceptualisation of autism. The research also aimed to understand whether varied cultural influences on educators’, autistic students’, and autistic adults’ conceptions of autism result in educators and their autistic students being on completely ‘different tracks’ in their understanding of autism and autistic individuals in educational settings.

The research compared whether conceptions of autism varied between research participants and how they reflected the interaction of the five processes of du Gay et al’s (2012) Circuit of Culture, including representation, production, consumption, identity, and regulation.

This qualitative research involved semi-structured interviews using a photo elicitation method with six educators and four autistic students (Bates et al., 2017) to investigate their conceptions of autism and the key elements that were of influence on their conceptualisations. Focus group interviews with four autistic adults provided insights into their past educational experiences and influences on their conceptions of autism. Individual research participants’ responses to the photo elicitation method and interview questions were analysed using reflexive thematic analysis (Braun & Clarke, 2006) and poetic inquiry (Lietz et al., 2006) to determine alignment to media discourses, influence of the autism industry and the five Circuit of Culture processes that contribute to the construction of popular culture. This research was co-constructed with autistic people at various junctures throughout the research.

This research considered whether educators, autistic students and adults are on the same track in their conceptions of autism, recognising that shared conceptual maps are fundamental to successful and positive relationships in educational contexts and beyond (Hall, 2013). My research explored how educators, autistic students and adults consume, represent and re-produce conceptions of autism and subsequently contribute to sustaining an autism culture that emerges from varied realities and myths. The outcomes highlighted that educators and autistic students are on ‘different tracks’ in explaining their conceptions of autism although both groups’ understandings were explicitly influenced by lived experiences and implicitly by the commodification of autism. In addition, the thesis outcomes recommend students are more active participants in supporting their educator’s understanding of their lived experience in a school context which is clearly influenced by the commodification of autism.

The research sought to provide evidence to assist educators, autistic students and adults to recognise and understand what has been of influence in their conceptualisations of autism, with the hope this may assist other educators and autistic people to take a more critical and questioning stance when consuming and/or producing information about autism.

Keywords: autism, neurodiversity, conceptions, photo elicitation, education, autism industry

Subject: Disability Studies thesis

Thesis type: Professional Doctorate
Completed: 2023
School: College of Education, Psychology and Social Work
Supervisor: Kerry Bissaker