Interview with Anders Nordahl-Hansen, PhD Professor of Special Education

With interest to feature university research on Special Education from across the Nordics, we were glad to conenct with Anders Nordahl-Hansen, Professor of Special Education at Østfold University College, to discuss several topics including researchers engaging with public, media research on autism, themes of focus at his department and more.

Professor Anders Nordahl-Hansen

THRIVE Nordics: Here at THRIVE Nordics, we are committed to featuring contemporary research from Special Education departments across the region. In our initial introductory chat, you mentioned the contractual duty and responsibility you have, as a professor, to engage with media.  How do you interpret this duty and make decisions about which outlets you have the time to appropriately engage with?

Anders: An important thing for researchers is of course to do proper meaningful research. If one succeeds with this, it is likely one can get things published in a scientific journal and that gives some kind of merit within the research community. However, although the publications can have its impact within the research community, researchers have a responsibility to communicate knowledge from their findings that might be of interest to a broader audience. The contractual duty to engage with the broader public is clearly stated in the Norwegian Regional ethics committees’ official documents that any researcher is supposed to follow. I do it gladly as I hope my research can contribute to better understanding of my research topics but researchers should not have a choice in the matter if one wants to fulfill the ethical responsibilities to the public. 

I try to make time for all requests but I take into account whether I can respond to the request based on my knowledge. Sometimes I get requests that are outside of my research area and then I typically refer to other researchers that can be of better help.  

THRIVE Nordics: You mention also that part of the duty to communicate with media is the ethical code in your work to communicate about your research to the general public.  What is the understood benefit for the general public to learn about your research?

Anders: There are some projects and publications I don’t think enjoy the general public’s interest since the practical implications are a bit niche. However, some of the research we believe is highly relevant and these are the ones we usually get requests from the media on. We hope to partake and engage the public in debate as well as hope to provide the public with educated opinions based on our research findings. 

THRIVE Nordics: Your department is at the forefront of media research on autism.  Chan you share a bit of background on how this came to be and how, historically, media research on autism became a core theme at the department?

Anders: Fun story behind our media-studies. One of my best friends, Magnus Tøndevold, and I was working with autistic adolescents in a housing complex around 20 years ago. We discussed a lot about various aspects related to autism. We were assistants but really eager to learn and get more knowledge about what autism was and what people thought of the condition. Most people today have heard about autism but most people’s knowledge come from media and not personal encounters with autistic individuals. A thing with media, here including for instance fictional portrayals in film and TV, is that things can often be over-simplified. Important nuances can be lost and in the instance of autism, which is a highly complex condition, this can lead to upholding myths and strengthening negative stereotypes. So we scientifically checked how fictional alleged autistic characters were portrayed in films and TV

THRIVE Nordics: Can you summarize the areas of media research at the department and what they cover?

Anders: We have published several papers on the topic of autism in film and TV and more are to come. However, we have also broadened the scope where we now look into social media and how autism are discussed there by stakeholders and the general public. In a recent publication we looked at how a newspaper in Finland portrayed autism over a longer period.  Any type of media is of interest and we have a good research team with PhD-students and researchers, both in Norway but we also collaborate with researchers in the UK and the US. Through our collaborative partners we also will compare across geographical boundaries how autism is portrayed in various sorts of media. 

In this video Nordahl-Hansen presents some of the findings from his earlier research on autism in film and TV and ongoing projects, as well as discussing the pros and cons related to portrayals of autism in media and how this affect the persons with the diagnosis, their families and society at large.

THRIVE Nordics: Can you provide a bit of background and insight on your research on the theme of autism advocacy on Twitter as well as how autism is discussed in social media?

Anders: We don’t know much about twitter and autism, at least not from research since very little research is done on this topic. But what is clear is that autism is present as a topic on twitter. Autism advocacy is present through the neurodiversity movement for instance under hashtags such as actuallyautistic, and other stakeholders such as national autism societies and parent organizations. We are interested in looking at how social media like twitter can influence the understanding of autism and in what ways it raises awareness and/or have other positive and negative effects. An important question is also how autism are discussed over time which we will also look into. 

Bio: Professor Anders Nordahl-Hansen

Anders Nordahl-Hansen is Professor of Special Education at Østfold University College, Faculty of Education in Norway. His research interests are on autism and neurodevelopmental disorders with a focus on development. He also does research on how autism and psychiatric diagnoses are presented in media as well as methodological issues related to quantiative research methods. He is head of the DeveLeP Lab at Østfold University College. He is associate editor of the journals Research in Developmental Disabilitites and Frontiers in Digital Health and on the editorial board of Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders.

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