The National Autistic Society (NAS) has launched Network Autism, the UK's first community for autism professionals, creating a central resource to share knowledge and best practice.
The NAS is the UK's leading charity for people with autism and their families. Founded in 1962, it continues to spearhead national and international initiatives and provide a strong voice for all people with autism. The NAS provides a wide range of services to help people with autism and Asperger syndrome live their lives with as much independence as possible.
Autism is a lifelong developmental disability that affects how a person communicates with, and relates to, other people. It also affects how they make sense of the world around them. It’s a spectrum condition, which means that, while all people with autism share certain difficulties, their condition will affect them in different ways. Some people with autism are able to live relatively independent lives but others may have accompanying learning disabilities and need a lifetime of specialist support. People with autism may also experience over- or under-sensitivity to sounds, touch, tastes, smells, light or colours.
Network Autism is a members-only community for autism professionals, from forensic psychiatrists to support workers, providing a central point where professionals can share good practice, engage in discussions and access the most up-to-date knowledge regarding autism. It is the first dedicated online community of professional practice of its kind in the charity sector.
The members-only community was built after NAS commissioned user research to ask more than 3000 professionals working in the field of autism what they wanted from an online community. The professionals asked were overwhelmingly in favour of having one central point where they can discuss best practice and share knowledge.
The next phase of work saw user experience experts go out and build on all the research insight acquired with the development of use cases (goal-oriented user journeys), describing the core user pathways through the website based on evidence from the survey. This then fed into a card-sort session with some key prospective users to ensure the taxonomy and information architecture for the site were properly constructed around user need and expectation.
A working Drupal prototype community was then developed by the technical team so that the NAS had a tangible model to test at the earliest possible stage. By adopting this approach the community was allowed to develop in an iterative context so that new ideas and functionality could be easily incorporated as the strategy for the community evolved. The site was completed on schedule and launched in time for the annual NAS Professional Conference.
Since launch, Network Autism has grown rapidly and we are already halfway to reaching our target of 1,500 members by 2013. In addition to online discussion forums with topics ranging from education to diagnosis, the Network Autism community offers open and closed groups. Both groups offer the opportunity to share documents and engage in discussions around specific topics or areas. Open groups are for the whole community to access, whereas closed groups offer the opportunity to control membership and set up a confidential, private space to collaborate. The community also includes a wealth of static content including research, good practice, case studies and individual opinion articles.
Partners in Network Autism such as Professor Tony Charman, a respected researcher at the Institute of Education provide quarterly articles based on their areas of expertise. These partner organisations also promote and encourage further engagement in the community.
NAS is breaking new ground in the charity sector with the launch of Network Autism. The massive survey response and rapid growth of the community in its first few weeks, demonstrates the importance of having a space where professionals can connect. We hope the community will serve as a benchmark for other organisations in the sector.