Examining intellectual ability, not social prowess: removing barriers from the doctoral viva for autistic candidates

  • Nick Chown Independent scholar
  • Luke Beardon Sheffield Hallam University
  • Nicola Martin London South Bank University
  • Sandra Ellis Independent scholar
Keywords: Asperger syndrome, autism, doctoral viva voce, needs assessment, virtual viva


The doctoral viva voce (‘viva’) has been variously described in the literature as mysterious, unpredictable and potentially frightening for students. Here we present a set of reasonable adjustments designed to remove social barriers from existing viva process for the benefit of autistic doctoral viva candidates. Our objective is to ensure that autistic students, who experience atypical differences in social interaction, social communication, and social imagination, are examined on intellectual ability, not social prowess. Recommendations are based on our many years of work with autistic adults in higher education and elsewhere and relevant literature. It is our view that these proposals could also benefit non-autistic doctoral candidates. Key proposals are to allow candidates the choice of a ‘virtual viva’ via electronic mail; to prepare a ‘needs assessment’ pre-viva; and to ensure that those involved understand autism sufficiently to appreciate issues specific to the individual and their viva. Academic rigour and integrity would not be compromised but the playing field might be flattened.

Author Biographies

Luke Beardon, Sheffield Hallam University
Senior Lecturer in Autism, The Autism Centre
Nicola Martin, London South Bank University
Head of Research and QTS Programmes


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