The Six Sections of an Autism Research Study | Organization for Autism Research

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This blog post has been adapted from Chapter 5 of OAR’s resource “A Parent’s Guide to Research”.

Research studies can be very good sources of information about autism, but they can also be difficult to read and interpret. However, most professional journals that publish research studies use a standard format for reporting research which consists of six sections, each of which will be explained in this blog post.


The abstract of an article presents a summary of the research study. Its purpose is to provide readers with a brief overview or synopsis of the article.

Background or Introduction

Research articles usually begin with some background information about the topic (e.g., autism) and the specific research areas related to the study.

The background or introduction section first summarizes previous research on the topic of interest to provide a framework or add context for the present study. The authors then state how their study adds to other research that has already been done.

Typically, authors state their research question(s) and hypothesis in the introduction. A research question states the topic broadly, while a hypothesis makes a specific prediction about what the researcher expects to find. One example of a research question could be, “Does early intervention make a difference in the need for special education services once children with autism are in elementary school?”. A hypothesis for this question could then be, “If children with autism receive early intervention, then they will be less likely to need special education services in elementary school.”

Methods or Methodology

The purpose of the methods section is to provide readers with a blueprint of how the study was designed and conducted. This section is usually divided further into subsections.

Research Design

This section tells the reader about the design of the study. Things to look for include:

  • What type of study was conducted? More information on the different types of studies can be found in this blog post.
  • Where was the research conducted? Was it conducted in a laboratory, clinic, or “real-world” setting?


This section tells the reader about the people who participated in the study, and gives information about their characteristics, such as age and gender. It also gives information about whether certain groups of people, such as those with co-occurring disorders, were specifically included or excluded in the study.


The procedure section explains how the study was conducted. Important questions to ask include:

  • What steps did the researchers take to set up and complete the study?
  • What kinds of data were collected? Some examples of types of data include measures of knowledge or behavior.

Measures and Instruments

This section should provide specific information about the instruments and measures used to collect the data. Generally, instruments that have been used by other researchers have more credibility than others.


The results section explains the statistical analyses of the data conducted as part of the study, and presents the findings of the analyses.

Research studies use sophisticated statistical methods to evaluate their findings. The average layperson (and even some researchers!) may be unable to evaluate the more complex statistical methods used in conducting research. Therefore, the best strategy for evaluating the findings of a given study may be to get a general idea by looking at the tables and figures provided.

The tables present the average or mean scores for each group on the measures used in the study.

The figures present the same information as the tables, but in a graphic format (often figures are presented as bar graphs or as line graphs).

Differences in group scores do not necessarily indicate that the findings are significantly different. In research, the findings are considered meaningful only if they are determined to be “statistically significant,” meaning that there is a high enough probability that the results did not occur by chance.


In the discussion section, researchers summarize the findings of the study, give their interpretation of the findings, and present their conclusions about the study. Key points to look for in this section include:

  • How do the authors summarize their findings?
  • How do the authors interpret the findings?
  • What are the limitations of the study? For example, was it limited by a small number of participants, or to a specific setting?
  • Are the findings applicable to different participants and other settings?

Authors should also discuss whether or not the findings are applicable to different participants and other settings. The researchers may end the discussion section by suggesting what research still needs to be done in order to answer the question more fully.


Research does not occur in isolation. In the references section of the article, the authors list all research studies that they cited in the article. If you want to look up a reference to learn more, you can search the author’s name or study title in an online database.

More information about finding and understanding research can be found in OAR’s A Parent’s Guide to Research. Order or download a copy for more information.

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