Posted on May 30, 2023 by Amanda Cerreto

Tori Dickensheets, who recently received her Master of Science in Psychology, took first place at UTSA’s 2023 3MT competition. 19 students competed, representing all six colleges.

3MT is a competition that provides graduate students the opportunity to showcase their scholarly work or research in three minutes or less. The competition provides a great opportunity for presenters to develop communication skills, to share their work with the San Antonio community and to compete for cash prizes.

Dickensheets’ presentation was based on her thesis: Jury perceptions of witnesses with autism: The role of diagnosis disclosure and presence of an accompanying person.

dickensheets-award.jpeg“One of the most common things that we use in the United States is providing children with support persons during their testimony,” Dickensheets said. “In previous studies, it’s been found that using them can reduce a juror’s perception of the child’s believability.”

Dickensheets wanted to see if those findings translated when a witness has autism. Her research asked participants closed and open-ended questions, and they varied depending on if the juror was informed or not informed of the autism diagnosis.

“I asked questions such as, ‘did knowing that the child had autism influence your decision and if so, how?’” Dickensheets said. “Some of the responses indicated that knowing the diagnosis did influence the decision – for reasons such as perceiving the nonverbal behaviors of autism as lying.”

A major finding was that when jurors knew the witness had autism, they believed her more because they were able to attribute the nonverbal behaviors to her diagnosis. When support persons were present, the witness was also seen as more believable – as long as the jurors knew about the diagnosis. If they did not know, they perceived the witness to be less trustworthy.

Dickensheets became interested in this particular topic in part because of her work at a nonprofit, serving individuals with disabilities. “There are so many children who experience maltreatment,” she said. “I wanted to take this research away from the clinical perspective so I could reach more people.”

Dickensheets has been admitted to the psychology Ph.D. program at UTSA, where she plans to continue this kind of research.

“We're planning on doing a study to follow up,” she said. “In this study, we used transcripts – in the next one, we’re considering using videos to see if the effects are stronger.”

Dickensheets was honored and flattered to receive first place as well as the people’s choice award for her research. She credits her mentor, Assistant Professor Monica Lawson, for guiding her through the research process.

“Having Dr. Lawson around has been the best thing, because she's really supportive and helped lead me into what I want to do,” Dickensheets said.

— Amanda Cerreto