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  • Writer's pictureProfiles in Catholicism

An Interview with Sandra Thom-Jones

Gordon: When did you attend The University of Western Australia, what degrees did you earn, and what is one of your favorite memories when you were there?


Sandra: I completed three degrees at the University of Western Australia, across a period of 16 years. The first was a Bachelor of Arts, majoring in English, in 1989. I worked in the Australian Public Service for five years, and then went back to university after I had my first son and completed a Master of Business Administration, majoring in Marketing. Then I studied at Curtin University for a few years, before returning to the University of Western Australia to complete my PhD in social marketing (using marketing techniques to improve health and social outcomes in the community). My favorite memories are being in the university library surrounded by books, back in the days before everything was online. Like many autistic people, I get very focused on topics that interest me and want to learn everything there is to know and university is a great place to do exactly that. I also enjoy finding unexpected connections between things, and new ways of applying knowledge from one discipline to another. The topic of my PhD thesis came about because I read a really interesting article in an Economics journal, curled up in the library on a rainy afternoon, and wondered whether the theoretical framework they used could be applied to encouraging people to exercise.  


Gordon: When did you attend Curtin University of Technology, and what degree did you earn?


Sandra: I attended Curtin University from 1999 to 2001, in the gap between my MBA and my PhD. I completed a Postgraduate Diploma in Health Promotion and a Master of Public Health.


Gordon: When did you attend University of Melbourne, what degree did you earn, what did you learn that enhanced your career?


Sandra: I completed a Master of Assessment and Evaluation (Education), from the University of Melbourne after I had submitted my doctorate. I didn’t actually ‘attend’ the university as I was living in another state, and this was an online degree. The course really helped me in my future career as a researcher as it expanded my understanding of the range of methods that could be used for evaluating programs and interventions, which was a key component of the work I went on to do.


Gordon: When did you serve as Director, Centre for Health Initiatives University of Wollongong and what were your primary responsibilities?

Sandra: After I completed my PhD, I took up a position at the University of Wollongong, working for Professor Don Iverson. Don became my mentor and friend, and taught me so much about research, abut the university environment, and about how to understand the people around me. He seemed to intuitively understand my challenges and my strengths as an autistic person, and my career flourished under his guidance. In 2004 Don encouraged me to establish the Centre for Health Initiative. CHI was a dynamic, multidisciplinary research centre; and one of the first social marketing centres in Australia to be located in a health (rather than business) faculty. CHI’s vision was to make a difference in the lives of people through developing innovative solutions that address contemporary health and social issues, working in partnership with communities.


Gordon: When did you serve as Professor, Faculty of Social Science at the University of Wollongong, and what courses did you teach?


Sandra: I worked at the University of Wollongong from 2002 to 2014, and was promoted to full Professor in 2007. I was only briefly involved in teaching, at the beginning of my time at UoW, as my focus was on building my research centre and undertaking community-based research and developing programs to improve health and social outcomes. I concurrently served for five years as Associate Dean (Research), in the Faculty of Health & Behavioural Sciences.


Gordon: When did you serve as Director of the Cram Foundation? Please provide an overview of the foundation's mission.


Sandra: I was a Director of the Cram Foundation from 2009 to 2014, a role I think I would have stayed in forever if I had not moved interstate for work. Cram focuses on providing high-quality outcomes for people with complex disabilities, through services that are suited to their needs and preferences. They support people who lived in shared living arrangements (group homes) to lead full, active and healthy lives.


Gordon: When were you an ARC Future Fellow and what were your primary responsibilities?


Sandra: I was an Australian Research Council Future Fellow from 2013-2016. My fellowship was awarded for a project to develop and implement a community-based intervention to tackle underage drinking, focusing on addressing social norms that make young people feel pressured to drink, and parents feel pressured to provide alcohol.


Gordon: What are some of the challenges and rewards of working with people with autism?


Sandra: I would like to answer that question in a slightly different way, and instead focus on the challenges and strengths autistic people have in the workplace. While every autistic person is different, common challenges experienced by autistic people in workplaces include sensory issues, interpersonal communication, learning unwritten rules, and discrimination. However, with the right supports autistic people can thrive in the workplace, and make significant contributions to their employers and colleagues. Strengths identified by autistic employees, and their employers, include cognitive aspects such as intense focus, intelligence, memory and creative thinking; work habits such as efficiency and attention to detail; and personal characteristics such as diligence, honesty, loyalty and reliability. You can read more about how to support autistic people in the workplace in my article in The Conversation.


Gordon: Tell us about your work at CatholicCare Melbourne.


Sandra: I had the privilege of being a Director of CatholicCare Melbourne from 2016 until 2021, when the organisation merged with CentaCare Ballarat and CatholicCare Sandhurst to form CatholicCare Victoria. CatholicCare Melbourne provided a broad range of services to empower communities, with a particular focus on those who find themselves on the fringes of society. This included family and relationship services, refugee and asylum seeker services, pastoral services, and education and school support services.


Gordon: When did you serve as Director, Centre for Health and Social Research (CHaSR), what is the organizations mission, and what were your primary responsibilities?


Sandra: I was recruited to the Australian Catholic University (ACU) in 2014 by Professor Wayne McKenna, and I established the Centre for Health and Social Research (CHaSR). CHaSR’s mission was to work with Australian communities to improve their health and wellbeing through research that has a direct and sustainable impact; and to empower individuals and communities to contribute to social change. My responsibilities included strategic planning, leadership, mentoring and active participation in research and community collaboration. 


Gordon: When were you working at Australian Catholic University, what positions did you have, and what were your responsibilities of each position?


Sandra: I worked at the ACU from 2014 to 2023. After three years as Director of CHaSR, I was asked by the then Vice-Chancellor Prof Greg Craven to take on the newly-created position of Pro Vice-Chancellor, Engagement, a role I was delighted to accept. As the PVCE I was responsible for the development and implementation of ACU’s Community Engagement Strategy. This strategy includes integration of community engagement into ACU’s curriculum across all Faculties; contribution and expansion of community stakeholder relationships; and broadening and deepening community engagement as a defining representation of the University’s mission. In 2021, following some directional changes at the university, I moved into the role of Pro Vice-Chancellor, Research Impact, with responsibility for the development and implementation of strategic frameworks to increase the university’s research engagement and impact.


Gordon: You are currently a freelance Autistic Professor and Principal Consultant. Who are some of your clients, and what services do you provide?


Sandra: I provide a range of personalised services to support autistic people and their families and friends, with a particular focus on autistic adults; including career mentoring, advice and advocacy, and education and advocacy materials. I provide services for workplaces, educational institutions, and other organisations that want to create more inclusive and supportive environments for autistic people; including presentations and workshops, education and advocacy materials, document review and tailored supports. I also provide research services and supports, working in partnership with the autistic and autism communities, from advice on research design and data collection tools to complete research projects. You can find out more about the services I provide on my Autistic Professor website.


Gordon: When were you appointed Honorary Professor University of Wollongong and what are your responsibilities?


Sandra: When I left my position at ACU last year to focus on my advocacy work, research, and writing, I was offered an Honorary Professor position at the University of Wollongong. Having an ongoing connection as a university academic is important to me, and I had such great memories from my 13 years working at UoW that I was delighted to accept the invitation. As an Honorary Professor I don’t have any specific research or teaching responsibilities, but the privilege of being able to collaborate with UoW academics and students. It also gives me an academic ‘home’ from which to launch my next book, Autistics in Academia: Narratives of Work, Adversity, and Achievement from Around the World, which is being published by Cambridge University Press in September.


Gordon: Is it correct that you are currently doing a second PhD?


Sandra: Yes, it seems strange to some people that after climbing to a senior university leadership position, I elected to return to study. However, when I did my first PhD I did not know that I was autistic – I just knew that I was different to the people around me and felt very uncomfortable with who I was. My second PhD, which I commenced in January this year at the University of Southern Queensland, is focusing on the experiences of autistic people as parents. There is a lot of research out there about what it is like for a non-autistic person to parent an autistic child but very little about what it is like when that person themselves becomes a parent. I want to understand not only the challenges we experience as autistic parents, but also the strengths we have, and the supports and resources that would assist us to thrive as parents. 


Gordon: What are the primary lessons that people should know about people with autism?


Sandra: This is such a big question, and one that I struggle to do justice to with a brief answer, which is why I write a book on this topic (Growing in to Autism, Melbourne University Press).

I would start with these three points:

  1. Autism is a lifelong condition: autistic children do not ‘grow out’ of it, they grow into autistic adults.

  2. Autism is a spectrum: each autistic person is an individual, with their own unique combination of strengths and challenges.

  3. Stereotypes are harmful: the media presentation of autism a white, adolescent males leads to many autistic people not receiving the support they need.


A simple strategy I recommend to people when considering how to talk about or think about autism, is to compare it to another misunderstood condition, Catholicism.

  • Why do so many autistic people prefer person-first language (autistic person rather than person with autism)? Because our autism is a fundamental part of who we are. You would probably not feel comfortable being described as a ‘person with Catholicism’.

  • Why is the way we talk about the strengths and challenges of autistic people so important? Because terms like ‘low functioning’ and ‘high functioning’ reduce a human being to an objective yardstick. We would not describe someone who struggles to remember hymns as a ‘low-functioning Catholic’ or celebrate the success someone has achieved ‘despite their Catholicism’.

  • Why do we need to reject the stereotypes and recognise the diversity of autistic people? You would never greet a new parishioner with ‘But, you don’t look Catholic!’

Gordon: Thank you for an exceptional and insightful Interview.

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