Lorenzo Molinari, a UCL Laidlaw Scholar, on advancing learning tools and practices for autistic adolescents, breaking stigmas, and calling for change.
In my Laidlaw research project I investigated perceptual load capacity—the ability to process a fixed number of sensorial stimuli at any given time—in neurotypical and autistic adolescents.
According to the Lavie’s Perceptual Load Theory, observers can effectively filter out irrelevant tasks when a high visual/hearing load is presented, but they lack such ability under a lower load. It follows that observers’ perceptual load capacity is maximised at any time: if we think about perceptual load capacity as a glass, one can imagine that they are filling their glass to the maximum at any time, but the stimuli they are filling it with may change. A typical example of this is the Gorilla Experiment.
The hypothesis of the study suggests that autistic adolescents have a higher baseline perceptual load capacity compared to neurotypical individuals of the same age. If their ability to process stimuli is higher, autistic individuals may require additional visual/hearing prompts in order to maximise their attention, which partially explains the high correlation between autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Most of the data collection occurred during a Brain Detectives session, an open-engagement workshop run by the Centre for Research in Autism and Education, where young adolescents have the opportunity to participate in multiple research studies.
Understanding how perceptual load capacity affects autistic adolescents can highlight the differences in learning requirements, which consequently can help design better learning tools and practices. Additionally, the research can help reframe what is considered a disadvantage (e.g. autistic adolescents often get distracted) as an advantage (e.g. autistic adolescents can process more sensorial stimuli), which contributes to eliminating the stereotypical and negative connotations around autism.
Where did your passion for this research originate?
I studied Biomedical Engineering at university because the programme combined my most favourite subjects: Maths, Physics and Biology. However, I was determined to keep my mind open to different opportunities, especially since UCL is a world-leading institution in several disciplines.
During my first few months at university, I met P. We became good friends quickly. One day, they opened up to me about their autism diagnosis and I didn’t know much about the condition at that point. Shortly after, I saw what P had to go through in the face of stressful situations; I saw how they felt during novel scenarios. I had to help. I wanted to help.
When I saw the Laidlaw Scholarship being advertised and the Brain Detectives research on the list of proposed projects, I realised that it is going to be a great opportunity. I could combine my long-standing desire to become an academic lecturer with my inner mission to help my close friend. I reached out to the supervisor of the project, scheduled an initial meeting and…the rest is history! After my first project, I was keen to continue to work on autism research and I chose an autism-related project with a more medical imaging spin on it, investigating early biomarkers of autism using functional near infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS).
I have learnt so much about autism throughout my research, and can now provide better support to P and/or anyone else who might need it.
Real life leadership lessons
During my second year of university, I had the chance to lead the Outreach team of Engineers Without Borders (EWB UCL). In my role, I strove to break the stigmas surrounding engineering by organising & delivering practical workshops in different schools around London, showing that engineering is accessible to anyone, regardless of race, gender and socio-economic background.
It was my first real leadership experience at university after the Laidlaw workshops and I can honestly say: it was not easy. Working with a team of 50+ volunteers and the President of a newly created society was a real challenge. How do you maintain contact with all? How do you ensure that volunteers feel comfortable to deliver the sessions? How do you manage to get the best out of them?
Here’s what I learnt:
- Don’t assume your peers know any less than you do. You may be the most familiar with the way a specific society works, but each individual has skills you cannot even imagine. Take time to listen and understand your team. You will be amazed at what great things you can get out of a simple conversation.
- Show that you care about them. Show them you are interested in their development and wellbeing. By doing so, you will have gained their trust and respect.
- Recognise successes. We often got bogged down in what did not work and forgot to emphasise what did. Celebrate the successes within the team, whether it is a great grade in a piece of coursework, a satisfying session or even a productive day — it boosts morale and brings positive energy to the table!
Top leadership tips
⚡️ Lead by showing, not by saying.
⚡️ Listen actively to those around you — don’t assume you know it all.
⚡️ Be aware of your actions and your words. And remember: a simple smile goes a very long way.
What does it mean for you to be a Laidlaw Scholar?
Being a Laidlaw Scholar means three things to me:
- I get to be part of a community of incredible people who are keen to understand how the world works and change it for the better;
- I get to be continuously inspired and challenged on a journey to learn, unlearn and explore the world around me through different lenses.
- I get to be at the forefront of change catalysed by Laidlaw Scholars, who are equipped to make the place we live in more equitable, inclusive and peaceful for all.
Which particular leaders inspire you the most and why?
It may sound a bit cliché, but one of the leaders who inspires me the most is Greta Thunberg. Two key features stand out to me:
- Her undying commitment to the cause: fighting the climate crisis. Greta has shared powerful messages that highlight that our home, the Earth, is on fire. She helped me understand the environmental consequences of my actions and I can now proudly fight alongside her and her community.
- Her ability to mobilise hundreds, thousands and millions of people. Greta has proven to the entire world that you do not need to be the CEO of a Fortune 500 company to have worldwide impact. Greta is the living proof that we, Laidlaw Scholars, can help change the world. And we MUST do so before it’s too late.
Time is ticking. Laidlaw Scholars, let’s get going!
Describe a scene from the future you are striving to create:
The bell rings. All kids get in the school. Sam just walks in: a non-binary person who is on a journey to discover their true self. Their classmates ask them what pronouns they want to be addressed by. Their teacher does not misgender them. Their family accepts their situation and provides parental support. Everyone treats Sam like they should be treated: a human being.
I strive to create a more welcoming, inclusive and caring environment for all. An environment where Sam can truly discover themselves while carrying on with their life. An environment where Sam can be loved and supported. And remember: it only takes a simple smile to make someone’s day and life better.
📺 Currently binging: Pose — a TV series that explores the issues of Black and Latinx LGBTQIA youth in the 1980s New York ballroom culture.
🎵 My quarantine anthem: High School Musical — “We're All In This Together”. Let’s not give up. We can do it.
📚 My top book recommendations:
Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts — a journey in India through the eyes of an escaped New Zealander inmate.
Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge — it is through discomfort and honesty that we can explore how white supremacy and systemic racism affects the Black community. This book will help you get started on your journey towards becoming a better ally.
🎧 Podcast obsession: Today in Focus by the Guardian — so informative and well done. Love listening to it before work!
🌈 Something that made me feel joy recently: My mum’s voice as she found out my brother recovered from COVID-19.
Lorenzo is a Laidlaw Undergraduate Research and Leadership Scholar at University College London. The programme uniquely funds both undergraduate research and leadership development, and aims to develop a new generation of leaders who are skilled researchers, embrace data-based decision making, and believe it is a moral imperative to lead with integrity.