Viewing Autism through the Arts Lens

Hosted by the Personal Social Services Research Unit and LSE Literary Festival

Sheikh Zayed Theatre, New Academic Building,


Ros Blackburn

Ros Blackburn

Jem Lester

Jem Lester

Emma Claire Sweeney

Emma Claire Sweeney


Professor Martin Knapp

Professor Martin Knapp

The scientific understanding of autism has developed significantly over the last few decades. But how realistically are autism and the experiences of autistic people and their families portrayed in the arts? Literature such as The Reason I Jump, plays like The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night, and movies such as The Accountant that reach the general public potentially increase the awareness of autism, but how far can arts and literature further revolutionise the way it is understood? Can they truly portray the reality of autism?

This event aims to use examples from literature and art to explore the quality of portrayals of autism. Speakers will provide their personal reflections on these questions, followed by audience discussion.

The panel is being finalised. Speakers currently include:

Ros Blackburn is an adult with autism. At three months old she appeared withdrawn, isolated and very much in a world of her own. At eighteen months she was diagnosed very severely autistic but with average intellectual ability. Now at 48 Ros lectures nationally and internationally giving insight into her own experiences and the care and education practices she has observed. In spite of the severe limitations imposed by her condition, Ros displays great courage (and a strong sense of humour) in facing her fears and tackling life’s challenges.  During the course of making the movie Snow Cake, a 2006 drama about the relationship between autistic Linda (Sigourney Weaver), and British tourist Alex, Sigourney Weaver researched the subject of autism and was coached by Ros.

Jem Lester (@jemlester) was a journalist for nine years and saw the Berlin Wall fall in 1989 - and though there, he denies personal responsibility. He was also the last journalist to interview the legendary Fred Zinnemann, before the director died. He denies responsibility for that too. He taught English and Media studies at secondary schools for nine years. Jem has two children, one of whom is profoundly autistic, and for them he accepts total responsibility. His recent novel Shtum is a story about families, forgiveness and finding a light in the darkest days. 

Emma Claire Sweeney (@emmacsweeney) has won Arts Council, Royal Literary Fund and Escalator Awards, and has been shortlisted for several others, including the Asham, Wasafiri and Fish. She publishes arts features and pieces on disability for the likes of the Guardian, the Independent on Sunday, Mslexia and The Times, and co-runs – a website on female literary friendship. Emma currently teaches creative writing at New York University, and has previously worked for Cambridge, City University’s Novel Studio and the OU. She is a fellow of Art and Cultural Studies Laboratory in Armenia and Woodstock Byrdcliffe Guild in the USA, and has also held writing residencies at Camden Carers, Eastside Educational Trust, Circle of Misse and Sunnyside Rural Trust – which resulted in the publication of The Memoir Garden: a collection of poems from the words and experiences of adults with learning disabilities. Her debut novel in 2016, Owl Song at Dawn, was inspired by her sister who has cerebral palsy and autism. 

Martin Knapp is Professor of Social Policy and Director of the Personal Social Services Research Unit at LSE. He is also Director of the NIHR School for Social Care Research. 

The Personal Social Services Research Unit (PSSRU) (@PSSRU_LSE) is part of LSE Health and Social Care, which is located within the Department of Social Policy. LSE has established a reputation for depth, breadth and excellence in British social science, with a long history of policy impact. 

Suggested Twitter hashtag for this event: #LSELitFest

This event forms part of the LSE Space for Thought Literary Festival 2017, taking place from Monday 20 - Saturday 25 February 2017, with the theme "Revolutions".

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This event has been certified for CPD purposes by the CPD Certification Service. Self-Assessment Record forms will be made available for delegates wishing to record further learning and knowledge enhancement for Continuing Personal and Professional Development (CPD) purposes. For delegates who wish to obtain a CPD Certificate of Attendance, it is the responsibility of delegates to register their details with a LSE steward at the end of the event and as of 1 September 2014 a certificate will be sent within 28 days of the date of the event attended by the CPD Certification Service.  If a delegate fails to register their details at the event, it will not prove possible to issue a certificate. (For queries relating to CPD Certificates of attendance after a request please phone 0208 840 4383 or email

From time to time there are changes to event details so we strongly recommend that if you plan to attend this event you check back on this listing on the day of the event.