Top award for Happé

Professor Francesca Happé wins the British Psychological Society Presidents' Award. Ella Rhodes speaks to her.

An internationally-renowned autism researcher has received this year’s British Psychological Society Presidents’ Award. Professor Francesca Happé (King’s College London) has led seminal work on the neurocognitive causes of social impairments in autism and more recently has begun investigating mental health in autism spectrum disorders and autism in under-studied groups, including women and older people.

A previous winner of the society’s Spearman Medal, Experimental Psychology Society Prize, and the Royal Society’s Rosalind Franklin Award, Happé is widely recognised as one of the most distinguished developmental psychologists in the UK. She is also a fellow of the Academia Europea, the Academy of Medical Sciences and the British Academy.

Happé said she was amazed and utterly delighted to receive the award, and that she felt particularly proud of the many students she has come into contact with over the years. ‘I’m most proud of my students’ achievements – when they get a wonderful paper accepted, pass their viva with no corrections, get their first prestigious job or promotion, or simply show admirable resilience against the knocks and set-backs we all have to face in academia. In terms of my career, I was incredibly fortunate to be President of the International Society for Autism Research and hugely privileged to have been Director of the Social, Genetic and Developmental Psychiatry Centre from 2012 to 2019.’

Looking to the future Happé said there were many fascinating open questions yet to be answered about autism which she hoped to investigate. ‘I’m keen to explore, for example, whether autistic people are more vulnerable to developing PTSD, because of differences in cognitive style, and do so following things that non-autistic people might not consider traumatic. That work could have real impact to improve access to interventions that could really improve lives. I’m also passionate about research with under-served groups such as women and the elderly on the autism spectrum.’

Professor Daryl O’Connor (University of Leeds), chair of the Society’s Research Board, said he was delighted that Happé had won this year’s award. ‘This year we received a large number of truly excellent nominations, which made the award committee’s task incredibly difficult. However, we felt that Professor Happé's distinguished contribution to psychological science over a sustained period and the outstanding quality of her research made her a worthy winner of this award.’

- Revisit our 2014 interview and a chapter from Happe’s recent book with Sue Fletcher-Watson, which looks to the future of autism.

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