A neurodiverse approach to evaluating goals and progress

Supporting neurodivergent young people with a tailored and flexible progress assessment tool

Partner overview

SENDCode supports young people who are socially isolated and neurodivergent (ND) to build digital skills and experience in real digital workplaces in and around Manchester, improving their confidence in seeking further training or employment in the digital economy. 

Project details: This project was completed in Spring 2021 as part of the Collaboration Labs programme, a PhD research consultancy programme created by REALab, with funding from the ESRC, the NWCDTP and the School of Arts, Languages and Cultures at the University of Manchester.

The challenge


SENDCode is a social enterprise which supports socially isolated young neurodivergent (ND) people, most of whom have been out of education for a long time but have an interest in careers and training in the digital economy. To measure their impact on ND learners the service provider needed a novel tool because existing measures are focussed on neurotypical priorities and involve significant literacy or processing challenges for ND people. 

Project delivery: March to June 2021

Research team

  • Leneh Buckle, PhD Psychology, The University of Manchester
  • Maria Liashenko, PhD in E-Research & Technology Enhanced Learning, Lancaster University

The solution

The Research Team developed an innovative ND friendly tool to assess the progress of ND service users which will is more inclusive by being more visual, by using unambiguous language and being focused on the priorities and values of ND young people. The researchers used a multifaceted theoretical framework including an impact value chain, a neurodiversity paradigm, a transformative participatory research framework, and a values-based approach. This approach included: 

  • A list of eleven values was developed from general and neurodivergent specific resources and three forms of visual support were designed to use during the project;
  • Two questionnaires to conduct a mixed-methods approach and to lead two focus groups with ND users;
  • The design of a model tool, which was discussed and evaluated with the ND users.

Outcomes and impact

The research identified eleven foundational values and key principles for a useful tool for ND users. Data analysis and focus groups enabled the researchers to design a tool which was reviewed and refined collaboratively with the ND users. The model tool shows the progress that ND young people make in a variety of domains, and by being adapted for autistic processing, for the first time it provides a process which is flexible and adapted to the needs of individual users.  

Besides offering a new practical solution to the partner's challenge, this research is also an important contribution to autism research and service provision by developing innovative, more inclusive methods to document the progress of ND service users. The proposed tool prepares ND service users to set and pursue their goals through self-assessment and creates a more accessible and inclusive educational environment from a neurodiversity perspective. The project finally demonstrates the importance of collaborating for participatory researchers to effectively inform practice and stakeholders decisions.

The project created unique opportunities for the team and the partner to initiate a transformative change in the ND assessment process. The team has already presented findings to an academic conference and are now considering future publication in peer-reviewed journals to raise awareness of the research methods and results newly developed. There is also potential to extend this research to further develop self-generated outcome measures, which is an identified priority in autism social care research.

In the media

I would highly recommend the programme to other partners. The Research Team had a real connection and empathy for our young people. The process also helped us to consider different ways of working and provided structure to our self assessment processes. The findings will help us to approach funders with objective evidence of the progress made by our young people.


This is crucial to us because of the wide range of challenges our participants face. Often it can be months before they feel confident enough to leave their homes and so traditional methods of gaining impact evidence are not appropriate. We will use the tool to set a baseline for individuals and then measure progress at key points. Previously we were unable to do this.

Seamus Mannion / SENDCode Director

I enjoyed being a part of this research project because for the first time in my life I felt that I could really apply my theoretical knowledge and expertise to help, support and generate viable and feasible solutions to a real problem in collaboration with the partner and my team member. This project has helped me to take a new professional turn or step in my life that I have been afraid of for many years.

Maria Liashenko / Lancaster University

This project has allowed me to apply background knowledge from two disparate areas, autism and quality of life assessment, and I also have a genuine possibility of applying the research outcomes in future projects. It is really satisfying to see a useful, practical project output that may be used in practice to enhance individuals’ lives and the work of an organisation like SENDCode. It has also been very heartening to know that neurodiversity-positive and specialist organisations such as SENDCode exist. I hope we have contributed to their ongoing success.

Leneh Buckle / The University of Manchester

2020 Project Excellence Awards

This research project won the 2020 Project Excellence Awards which recognises the significant achievements of our postgraduate and early career researchers in making a difference with their PhD skills and expertise in the wider community.

Find out more about the Project Excellence awards.