Professor Dissanayake was the Founding Director and inaugural Chair of Australia’s first research centre dedicated to autism: the Olga Tennison Autism Research Centre established in 2008. In 2021, upon the passing of its benefactor, OTARC received a bequest of $45 million which is invested to fund autism research in perpetuity.
Professor Dissanayake migrated to Australia in 1974 with her family as a 13-year-old. From a prestigious and conservative convent school in Colombo, she attended a public school in Melbourne’s south-east, commencing at Monash University four years later. She’s been an autism researcher since 1984, when she began her PhD at Monash University. On completion, she undertook a postdoctoral fellowship in the Sigman lab at UCLA.
Professor Dissanayake established and led an active research program in autism upon joining the School of Psychological Science (now the School of Psychology and Public Health) at La Trobe University in 1996. In addition to her scholarly activities, including numerous grants and publications, Prof. Dissanayake was instrumental in bringing together Victorian and Australian autism researchers, having co-founded the Autism Victoria ASD Research Group (in 2003), the Australasian Autism Research Alliance (in 2005), the Australasian Autism Research Collaboration (in 2009) and the Australasian Society for Autism Research (2011), a member based society of which she was vice-President until 2020, when she was honored with a Lifetime Membership. She was on the bid team and was a Project Leader in the Cooperative Research Centre for Living with Autism (2013-2021).
Professor Dissanayake has been recognised as a Research Field Leader for five consecutive years by The Australian (2018-2022) and as one of nine Global Research Leaders in 2020. She was amongst the first ten scholars to be inaugurated as a Fellow of the International Society for Autism Research (INSAR) in 2018, and was elected vice-President of INSAR in 2019. She serves on the Senior Global Leaders Committee of INSAR, representing the Western Pacific region, and chairs its Fellows Committee.
Professor Dissanayake ascribes her career achievements to the mentorship she has received from numerous female leaders, whose generosity she seeks to repay by mentoring emerging scholars. In 2022, Professor Dissanayake was elected as a Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences Australia. She was recognized with an Order of Australia (AM) in the same year.