Profile: Dr Catherine Manning
Dr Cathy Manning is Supernumerary Fellow in Autism and Related Disorders and Sir Henry Wellcome Postdoctoral Fellow. Following her PhD, she held the Scott Family Junior Research Fellowship in Autism and Related Disorders at University College, Oxford (2014-2017). She received the Reproducible Autism Science Award at Autistica’s Discover conference in 2019 and was named an Association for Psychological Science (APS) Rising Star in 2018.
How did you decide to become an academic?
I always knew I wanted to work with children, and developmental psychology really appealed to me. I didn’t know I’d stay in academia, but opportunities arose for my PhD and then my first postdoctoral fellowship at Univ, and I have really enjoyed it all!
What does your research into autism involve?
I am looking at how autistic children process sensory information, with a particular focus on the visual system. It involves seeing children with and without an autism diagnosis and measuring their responses to sensory information within fun, child-friendly computer games. We sometimes use electroencephalography (EEG) to measure children’s brain responses at the same time. We have found differences in how autistic children see moving things — for example, we have found that autistic children are good at combining motion signals, but that they sometimes have difficulties filtering out task-irrelevant information.
How has your research and teaching changed during lockdown?
Luckily I had just finished a big data collection effort just before the first lockdown, so I have mainly been analyzing data. We have also just started reinviting children into the University to take part in a new study. It is much slower with all the PPE and careful cleaning regimes, but it’s nice to see families again. I feel for colleagues who have a greater teaching load than me – I’ve just had a couple of online lectures to give and I’ll admit there were tears after multiple recordings which didn’t save properly! I have also been working with my undergraduate project students to get their research projects online. This has been a steep learning curve for us all but I think it will be a useful thing to learn as we may be able to reach participants who wouldn’t be able to travel into the University to take part in our studies.
How can we change the university environment so that it is more conducive to the learning of autistic students (while recognising the vast spectrum of needs)?
This is a great question. Sensory processing differences, which are the focus of my research, can present considerable challenges to autistic people. Therefore, it is important to consider the sensory environment in which students learn – for example some students might struggle with fluorescent lighting, or too much background noise (e.g., in a busy lecture theatre). Consulting autistic students themselves is absolutely essential to find out what support systems should be put in place and how things could be changed to help them learn better, with the understanding that this may of course vary from one autistic student to another.
Have you faced any challenges in your life that you are happy to share here? How did you deal with them?
My dad died in the final year of my undergraduate degree at Oxford which was really hard. I kept up my hobbies (singing) and had frequent trips back to my family home, and my tutors were very understanding. More recently, the Department of Experimental Psychology building closed with 48 hours’ notice, which caused big disruption to my research. At this time, it was particularly nice to have support from the college, and I just focused on analysing an old dataset that I’d not got round to before. Looking after a toddler while trying to work full-time during the first lockdown was also challenging, which meant that I had to prioritise what I worked on. I’m just so glad nurseries are back open again now, although I did enjoy spending extra time with my daughter.
Do you have any advice for current students, especially during this strange time?
Be kind to yourself! An Oxford degree can be stressful enough without having to deal with a pandemic at the same time. Keep communicating with your tutors and reach out for extra support where needed.
Describe Univ in three words.
Welcoming, inspiring, supportive.
Published: 4 January 2021