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Wales spearheads autism research

29 January 2009

Professor Susan LeekamProfessor Susan Leekam

Wales’ pioneering approach to tackling the challenges of autism has been reinforced with the appointment of a University professorship dedicated to researching the condition.

Professor Susan Leekam, a developmental psychologist who has been studying autism for the last 20 years, has been appointed Chair in Autism Research at the School of Psychology.

Autism is thought to affect up to one child in every 100, creating difficulties in communicating, forming relationships and making sense of the world.

Wales is the first country in the world to have a national autism strategy. This involves a "whole-nation" approach combining high quality services and research into the disorder. The new Chair at Cardiff is part of that approach, and is supported by the Welsh Assembly Government and the two charities Autism Cymru and Autism Speaks.

Professor Susan Leekam is a development psychologist whose research has focussed on the cognitive and diagnostic aspects of autism and its related conditions. She is currently Professor in the Department of Psychology at Durham University.

Professor Leekam said: "I am delighted to receive this prestigious appointment of Chair of Autism at Cardiff University. This is a unique academic post with enormous scope to develop advances in psychological research both nationally and internationally."

The Head of the School of Psychology, Professor Dylan Jones said: "The School has a full range of skills and resources to support the new post, including expertise in emotional development, in genetics and in brain structure and function through the Cardiff University Brain Research Imaging Centre. We look forward to welcoming Sue to the University and making significant progress in our understanding and treatment of this distressing condition."

Gwenda Thomas AM, Deputy Minister for Health & Social Services with the Welsh Assembly Government said: "Together with the current implementation of the Welsh Assembly Government Autistic Spectrum Disorder Strategic Action Plan, this appointment signposts an immensely encouraging time for autism in Wales. It is clear that the recruitment of Professor Leekam, who brings with her such an excellent research pedigree, will play a key role in enabling Wales to take its rightful place on the national and international autism research stage. I am also especially appreciative of the partnership created by Autism Cymru with Autism Speaks and Cardiff University, which brought about this prestigious and ground-breaking appointment. It is gratifying that the Welsh Assembly Government and funders both within and outside of Wales are also making important contributions."

Professor Bill Fraser CBE, Chair of Autism Cymru, said: "The creation of this Chair illustrates the fact that Wales continues to be serious about autism and is prepared to make innovative responses to it. We look forward very much to supporting Sue and her evolving research team in their exciting work."

Hilary Gilfoy, Chief Executive of Autism Speaks, said: "Autism research is now increasingly recognised as not only having the potential to greatly benefit those affected by autism but also as being vital to our understanding of how the brain develops in all people. Professor Leekam brings excellent insight, great experience and high energy to the role, and we look forward to the contribution she and her colleagues will make to both Wales and the wider world."

• The Cardiff University Widening Access Team will this summer repeat its highly successful residential summer school for pupils with Aspergers Syndrome. Last summer saw pupils attend along with a teacher or family representative to introduce them to the social aspects of student life. They were shown the process of arrival at halls of residence, registration and settling in on the first day at university. The feedback from pupils, parents and teachers was extremely positive and up to 50 pupils are expected at this summer’s event.

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