Interview with Luke Beardon

We talk to the Sheffield Hallam autism expert about societal prejudices, the focus on research impact and a rugby career curtailed

March 24, 2016
Luke Beardon, Sheffield Hallam University

Luke Beardon is senior lecturer in autism at Sheffield Hallam University. He has been working as a practitioner providing support and consultancy in the field of autism and Asperger’s syndrome for more than two decades. Earlier this month, he won the Axcis Award for Achievement by an Individual Education Professional, run by The National Autistic Society.

Where and when were you born?
Born in 1971, grew up in Cambridge.

How has this shaped you?
I guess growing up in a university city (with academic parents) both demystified and mystified higher education. On the one hand, there were these students wandering around who seemed a million miles away from anyone I knew – almost unlike “real” people – and yet at home there was mum and dad and growing up as part of a family. 

What were your reactions to winning the award?
Well, my immediate reaction was to burst into tears and then fall over on stage. Then came the shaking that lasted half an hour or so. Then the absolute relief that I didn't have to make a speech. At some point after that the knowledge that I had been granted the award started to sink in…and I [still] don't think [that] it has fully [sunk in] a couple of weeks later.

This award is a measure of the wider societal impact of your teaching and research. Is that what you base your research on?
For me, research has to have a clear purpose – and that is to positively benefit people with autism, their families, carers and professionals. Impact, to me, is everything. Improving the knowledge base in the autism field is all about bringing forward positive change. I am so lucky to be course leader for the postgraduate certificate in autism and Asperger syndrome, which is run in collaboration with The National Autistic Society. Many of my students use their studies to influence their working lives, which is immensely satisfying.

After accepting the award, you said “the concept that all people with autism are disordered, impaired, or somehow ‘lesser’ is one that needs to be challenged”. Is this a view that is still held in society?
There is a huge population of autistic people worldwide, some of whom may be very negatively impacted by autism. However, there are also very happy, fulfilled, giving individuals who contribute hugely to society. I think that there is a growing movement, spearheaded by people with autism, who are gradually grinding down the concepts of the medical model of autism, and refuting an impairment-based “disorder” model.

Do academics think about winning awards when undertaking research, or do they just focus on doing interesting and impactful projects?
For me, the fact that I received the award is less about a personal achievement and far more about a validation that sea changes can happen, and with continued work, will happen. This is a hugely motivating driving force for me; sometimes change occurs so slowly it becomes frustrating, and one wonders if all the effort is worth it. Then something like this happens which just shows that the effort is well worth every second.

What has changed most in higher education in the past 10 years?
The obvious response might be to say “how much it costs”. I prefer, though, to note the increasing numbers of students with autism accessing higher education with the Equality Act being a fantastic base upon which higher education can support students as effectively as possible.

What advice would you give to your younger self?
When things are going well, enjoy life; when things are rubbish, be patient – it won't last forever.

What are the best and worst things about your job?
I am an obsessive when it comes to autism, so living in a world where I get to talk about autism and meet so many amazing individuals in the autism field is literally a dream come true. The worst thing? Probably when I am teaching away from home. I miss my family and my wonderful furry quadrupeds.

What do you do for fun?
In no particular order…cooking, looking after my family, reading, sniffing the dog and triathlons.

What’s your biggest regret?
I would like to be playing rugby at the age of 50, but compressed vertebrae in my neck and a broken collarbone at 43 has meant otherwise.

What kind of undergraduate were you?
At best, mediocre. I had little idea what I was supposed to do, and probably even less how to do it. I had this somewhat bizarre notion that just because I read (a lot) it would mean that I would breeze through an English literature degree without doing much else. I was never very good at studying until I discovered my passion – autism.

What’s your most memorable moment at university, both as a student and as an employee?
My most memorable moment as a student was using my student loan to fly to India to do voluntary work in Mumbai (then Bombay) and having a chat with Mother Teresa just before she flew to Rome to see the Pope. As an employee, it was getting the phone call to offer me the job. I thought it must have been a prank.

Tell us about someone you admire.
My wife. Her attitude of “between us anything is possible” has got us through so many tough times...she’s a legend. I could barely survive on a daily basis without her or my boys.

Have you had a eureka moment?
My most memorable epiphany was when I was doing my doctorate and I realised that research just isn’t neat and tidy. This has stood me in great stead and is just such an important lesson to learn – that, and the fact that it’s both impossible to right the world’s wrongs in one lifetime and OK not to do so.


Susan Hart has been appointed dean of Durham University’s business school. Professor Hart, currently associate deputy principal at the University of Strathclyde, takes up her position in the summer. She was previously dean of Strathclyde’s business school, leading it to its best results in the research excellence framework, besides enhancing provision across its nine international centres. She has also worked for a range of private sector companies. “It will be a great privilege to collaborate on building on the school’s reputation for combining Durham’s research heritage and calibre with a passion for learning, and making a positive impact both with business and wider society,” Professor Hart said.

Richard Dashwood is to join Coventry University as deputy vice-chancellor in May, to lead on research strategy. Professor Dashwood is academic director, head of engineering materials and manufacturing, and chief technical officer of the High Value Manufacturing Catapult at the University of Warwick’s Warwick Manufacturing Group (WMG). Professor Dashwood will focus on preparing Coventry for the 2021 REF. “I am looking forward to working with the leadership team to continue growing Coventry’s reputation as an institution that carries out impactful research which has influence across the globe,” he said.

Jisc has appointed Robin Ghurbhurun, the chief executive and principal of Richmond upon Thames College, to its board of trustees.

A former professor of nursing in the Ministry of Defence, Alan Finnegan, has joined the University of Chester as professor of nursing and military mental health.

The Royal Agricultural University has made Angela Simkins director of Farm491, a new £5.5 million agriculture technology incubator.

David Spicer has been appointed dean of the University of Salford’s business school.

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