When does inspiration for education research come in cake form?

“It’s all about being different”

In the Great British Bake Off, contestant Lizzie created an amazing cake that celebrated difference and was inspired by her experience of ADHD and dyslexia. In describing the cake, she explained “it’s all about being different” – expressed through a different way of using colour, pattern, texture. Importantly, it makes us think about difference – it doesn’t give us answers, it makes us realise that we haven’t even thought of the questions.

Curiosity about difference, the desire to present just a little of the variety of way of thinking and experiencing, is what connects Lizzie’s cake to our study. Our materials are simple – they’re everyday words that reflect ways of engaging with learning. We use these words to explore students’ experiences with curiosity and interest in the patterns that emerge.

Alongside the survey, we’re inviting autistic undergraduates to talk in more detail about their experiences of learning. In planning the interviews we’ve taken inspiration from Lizzie’s cake, making every effort to support our participants in sharing their experiences and perspectives as openly and vibrantly as possible.

To do this, we have three key considerations: reality, utility and tools.


The ‘reality’ explored in our interviews is made up of the perceptions, reflections and interpretations of learning experiences of the students, across all relevant domains of experience (Bailey & Baker, 2020). Value and validity are given to the individual’s experience (Astle & Fletcher-Watson, 2020), which will be framed in the analysis only in very broad ‘engagement’ terms (Wang et. al 2019; Skinner & Pitzer, 2012).

We’re committed to actively listening to voices of autistic participants (Bölte, 2019) and ensuring our research is inclusive (Bottema-Beutel et al., 2021).


The findings of the interviews are used alongside the survey findings, to build a picture of students’ learning experiences. So, to be useful, we need to remain open to anything the participant feels is relevant within the context of learning activities and give opportunities for participants to prioritise and define what is important to their learning.


We know that individual communication preferences vary, so we have a range of video, audio and text platforms available to allow participants to choose the platform that’s most comfortable to them. The interviews have a conversational style, driven by our interest in the individual and curiosity and respect for their experience.

Our interviews are carried out by Julie, the lead researcher, who is an experienced specialist learning mentor with skills and training in conversations around learning and mental health.

Putting it all together

Combined, these considerations guide our interviews and ensure that we can start to build a picture of autistic students’ experience of learning that’s as thought-provoking and beautiful as Lizzie’s cake.


Astle, D. E., & Fletcher-Watson, S. (2020). Beyond the Core-Deficit Hypothesis in Developmental Disorders. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 096372142092551. https://doi.org/10.1177/0963721420925518

Bailey, J., & Baker, S. T. (2020). A synthesis of the quantitative literature on autistic pupils’ experience of barriers to inclusion in mainstream schools. Journal of Research in Special Educational Needs. https://doi.org/10.1111/1471-3802.12490

Bölte, S. (2019). Hey autism researcher, what’s on your mind today about inclusion? Autism, 23(7), 1611–1613. https://doi.org/10.1177/1362361319870994

Bottema-Beutel, K., Kapp, S. K., Lester, J. N., Sasson, N. J., & Hand, B. N. (2021). Avoiding Ableist Language: Suggestions for Autism Researchers. Autism in Adulthood, 3(1), 18–29. https://doi.org/10.1089/aut.2020.0014

Skinner, E., & Pitzer, J. R. (2012). Developmental Dynamics of Student Engagement, Coping, and Everyday Resilience. In S. L. Christenson, A. L. Reschly, & C. Wylie (Eds.), Handbook of Research on Student Engagement (pp. 21–44). Springer US. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-4614-2018-7_2

Wang, M.-T., Fredricks, J., Ye, F., Hofkens, T., & Linn, J. S. (2019). Conceptualization and Assessment of Adolescents’ Engagement and Disengagement in School: A Multidimensional School Engagement Scale. European Journal of Psychological Assessment : Official Organ of the European Association of Psychological Assessment, 35(4), 592–606. https://doi.org/10.1027/1015-5759/a000431

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