Focus on families

What is a study?

A research study is designed to investigate a topic of interest. A study begins with a research question e.g. “Do autistic adults experience more sleep difficulties than non-autistic adults?”. A study is then designed to answer the research question.

Five basic types of research:

1. Case Study 2. Correlational Study 3. Longitudinal Study 4. Experimental Study 5. Clinical Trial Study

Case studies

A case study looks in depth at a single subject (e.g. autistic adult) or a single case (e.g. a classroom for children with autism). This may include interviews, focus groups or observations.

tick collect a lot of information about one person. E.g. OTARC uses this method to gather information from the autistic community about what is important to study and incorporates that into future study designs.
cross only gather information about one person so it cannot be generalised to other people or other cases in other situations or other settings. E.g.

Correlation studies

This type of study looks at the relationship between two variables. Correlational studies cannot tell us what causes or effects of this relationship. E.g. a study may ask the question “Is there a relationship between insomnia and depression in autistic children?”

tickcan gather a lot of information about a large number of people at one point in time.
crosscannot control  other factors outside of the study that might influence the research. E.g. Weather, medical emergency etc.

Longitudinal studies

This type of study allows us to see how relationships between variables change over time. We do this by following a group over time, measuring the same behaviours at each time point. For example, the Study of Australian School Leavers with Autism  is following young autistic adults to see what has positive or negative effects on their lives over two years using an online survey. The figure below describes the change in the amount of the autistic individuals responding to the question “I’ve been feeling confident”.


tick allow researchers to find the times when changes occur.
cross require a long time to complete and are expensive.

Experimental studies

This type of study is used to study cause and effect. An experiment is controlled so that only one variable is manipulated by the researcher to determine its effect. Participants are randomly placed into two groups. The experimental group which receives something (e.g. medication, support program) or to the control group which completes the same steps but without receiving anything. This allows the researcher to see the differences between the groups.


Allows researchers to examine cause and effect relationships.

cross The results cannot always be generalised to the real world. Because what occurs in a controlled environment of a study may be very different from what might occur in a real-life setting

Clinical trial studies

This type of study is commonly used in clinical settings (e.g. a lab) where the experimental group receives something (e.g. medication, clinical program, diet…) and the control group receives nothing or a placebo (something we know will not have an impact). Participants are not aware of which group they are in during the study. This stops the hopes of the participant impacting the effects of the ‘something’ on the outcome (e.g. losing weight).

The strongest type of clinical trial is a double-blind study. This is where even the researcher does not know which participant in in which group. This stops the hopes of the researcher having an impact on the outcome of the experiment.

The advantage of clinical trial studies is that they can show how effective the ‘something’ is. This is because the ‘something’ can be compared to doing nothing.

The disadvantage of clinical trial studies is that the results of the study cannot always be generalised to a real-life setting .

Glossary of research terms

Qualitative – use of observation to gather non-numerical data. E.g. interviews, focus groups, test response questions in surveys

Interview – a qualitative research approach where the researcher askes a person questions in a conversation while recording that person’s responses.

Focus groups – are a guided or open discussion about a topic of research with a small group of people. E.g. OTARC has held focus groups about what the path to diagnosis was like for them.

Observations – researcher seeing how participants act in their environment. E.g.

Generalised – the process of taking results from a study and extending to a wider or universal effect.

Variables – a characteristic, number or quantity that is likely to change over time or situation.

Independent variable – can cause a change in other variables

Dependent variable – will only change in value in response to an independent variable.


Control – in research to ‘control’ is the process by which researchers increase a study’s ability to isolate what is causing change in a dependent variable.

Control group – this is a comparison group that does not have an independent variable of interest. E.g. autism.

Random sampling – selected by chance but with a known likelihood of selection.

Placebo – a substance or