Is Online as Good as the Lab? Retesting & Refining Online Approaches in Autism Research

Project: Research council

Project Details


Social scientists are adapting their methods for the online environment, which accelerated after March 2020. Online approaches have been crucial for autism research as many autistic adults were clinically vulnerable and unable to attend in-person studies during the pandemic. These approaches, as we have been pioneering, are turning out to be a powerful way to engage an incredibly large, diverse, and inclusive group of autistic people in social science research.

Further, online approaches are going a long way to reducing longstanding problems of in-person research, such as inaccessible laboratory facilities (e.g., due to autistic people's sensory sensitivities). They are also slashing the financial, environmental, and psychological costs of participants travelling to research centres. Moving forward, there is clearly an ongoing need for online approaches to advance understanding of autism and support autistic people.

Critically, however, several fundamental questions must first be addressed: How do autistic people experience online research? Does it feel as valuable as in-person studies, and what is the best online method to involve autistic people in designing research? Who are the autistic people in online samples, including those who 'self-identify' as autistic, and are they representative of the autistic population? Are online autism studies even as valid and reliable as laboratory approaches, and could they be improved? In a first-of-its-kind project, developed with autistic adults, staff at the National Autistic Society (NAS), and a UK-based online research platform (Prolific), we will address these important questions.

First, we will investigate what autistic people really think and feel about online compared to in-person research. This will double up as a novel way to compare the breadth and depth of insights generated using different online methods (e.g., different sized and structured focus groups and surveys). The analysis of rich, qualitative data will feed into new guidelines for engaging autistic people, both as participants and partners in the online research process.

Second, a large online study will survey 4000 autistic and non-autistic people. Participants will complete in-depth questions about their social background, a test of general mental ability, and information about autism and other diagnoses. Using advanced statistics, co-developed with autistic people, we will compare online data to existing population-level results. These analyses will be conducted for the very first time in the field, revealing insights into online autism samples, and making new discoveries about autistic adults more generally. Our data will also form the world's first freely accessible neurodiversity database. Allowing researchers from anywhere in the world to recruit participants and build on our data, this will revolutionise autism and neurodiversity research.

Third, using recently developed social cognitive tests, we will conduct the world's first comparison of how autistic people perform online to the lab. A series of advanced analyses will provide much-needed insight into whether online cognitive tests are as valid and reliable as in the lab. We will also ask autistic people how they felt about participating, comparing their online and lab experiences, and learn new lessons about how these approaches could be improved. Together, this will generate new ideas on the best ways to conduct online and in-person research in autistic and non-autistic adults.

Overall, this innovative project is at the vanguard of retesting, refining, and revolutionising online approaches, towards firmly embedding them in future autism, neurodiversity, and social science research. Our findings will be widely publicised through i) world-class academic papers and conferences, and ii) an international online knowledge exchange event for scientists and other stakeholders (e.g., neurodivergent people, clinicians, policymakers).
Effective start/end date1/09/2331/08/26

Collaborative partners


  • Economic and Social Research Council


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