Skip to main content

Current Projects

New academic staff member in the Centre - Keren MacLennan

Photo of KerenI have recently joined Durham University as an Assistant Professor in Neurodiversity. My research focusses on understanding more about how autistic people’s sensory processing differences, and how their experiences of sensory environments relates to mental wellbeing, accessibility, and inclusion.

Prior to joining Durham University, I completed my PhD at The University of Reading, and undertook two postdoctoral roles; supporting the Sensory Street project at the University of Oxford, and Project Soothe at the University of Reading.

I often co-produce my research with autistic people and I have expertise in qualitative research and participatory research methods.


New academic staff member in the Centre - Haemy Lee-Masson

Photo of HaemyI have recently joined Durham University as an Assistant Professor in Neurodiversity. I am a social neuroscientist studying the brain responses to social touch events. Currently, I'm working on a project looking at the brain activity of autistic adults when they watch movies that show people engaging in social touch interactions, like hugging or holding hands. I use brain scans, psychology experiments, and computer science methods in my research.

Before joining as an assistant professor at Durham University, I earned a PhD in Brain Imaging Engineering at Korea University in South Korea, and I have also worked as a researcher at KU Leuven in Belgium and Johns Hopkins in the United States.



New autism & psychosis online seminar series - Ben Alderson-Day

Photo of Ben

Ben Alderson-Day recently launched a new autism & psychosis online seminar series co-hosted by the Centre for Neurodiversity and Development and the Institute for Medical Humanities at Durham. The first speaker was Dr Katie Chisholm (Aston University), who presented on her recent research assessing how autistic traits are recognised in people with psychosis. Over 100 people attended the first session including many clinicians from our local NHS mental health trusts, CNTW & TEWV. If you would like to hear more about future events in this series, please email Ben.

Ben has also published a new paper in the journal Cortex with Dr Amy Pearson (University of Sunderland) called “What can neurodiversity tell us about inner speech, and vice versa? A theoretical perspective”. The paper  - which is Open Access – argues for a new perspective on self-talk and inner monologue in relation to autism and other examples of neurodivergence. Although such topics are very important for mental health, they are not often approached from a neurodiversity perspective.

PE access and engagement for autistic pupils in secondary school - James Mcleod 

Photo of James

Hi I am James Mcleod a new postgraduate research student in the department of psychology. Both my undergraduate and masters degree were completed at Durham University Sport and Exercise sciences department. For my PhD, I will be primarily a psychology student in the department but will be working with a co-supervisor from the Sport and exercise sciences department where I will be taking a mixed-methods and multi-informant approach to understand the factors that influence secondary school PE access and engagement for autistic young people as a means of understanding physical activity involvement.

As part of this project, I will work with autistic young people who have lived experience of these issues as well as collaborating with my external partner, North Yorkshire Sport.

What do we know about girls with ADHD? - Sibel Akbiyik

My name is Sibel Akbiyik, and I am conducting a research project titled 'Sex differences in ADHD: How do girls differ in cognitive, behavioural, and social profiles from boys?' In this study, we aim to understand more about boys and girls with Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).

Our current knowledge of these differences is limited, despite researchers studying it for a long time.

This research investigates whether there are any differences in how boys and girls with ADHD think, behave, and interact with others. We will look at areas such as executive functioning, emotion regulation, and social aspects of ADHD, including peer relations and social networks.

To start, we have conducted a comprehensive literature review to build a strong foundation of existing knowledge in the field of ADHD and gender differences. Now, this research is in the process of seeking ethical approval for the first phase of the study.

Barriers and facilitators to school outcomes for autistic pupils in mainstream schools – Jess Hirst 

Hi I’m Jess Hirst and I am currently in the 3rd year of my PhD looking at the factors that impact the quality of school life and academic outcomes for autistic pupils in mainstream schools.

This project first involved capturing the meaning of ‘school success’ as well as probing the barriers and facilitators to this from the perspective of autistic adolescents.

I am now in the second phase, which involves building and testing a broader model to see which predictors are most important for different school outcomes for autistic pupils.

For more information on this project, or if you are currently working within a mainstream secondary school in the UK and think you might want to be involved with this project please email:


PhD project on social interactions and friendships from a cross-neurotype perspective - Rhys Proud

Image of RhysMy PhD is centred around interactions and friendships between autistic and non-autistic people, in particular try to understand what seems to work well in friendships between autistic and non-autistic people. This research aims to help us to understand cross-neurotype interactions more broadly, and particularly how these can work well between friends. I’m currently working on the final stage of analysis looking at social interactions between autistic and non-autistic teenagers who are friends compared to strangers within schools.

I’m also working on the writing up of my overall PhD results and publications for some of my earlier research.


Understanding school attendance experiences for neurodivergent pupils – Chloe Fielding 

I’m Chloe, and I am a new PhD student in the Centre for Neurodiversity and Development. Lots of neurodivergent pupils are anxious at school, which can lead to extreme distress and difficulties attending school. My PhD project aims to understand who experiences anxiety in mainstream schools, the factors that lead to this anxiety, and what we can do to help pupils who are struggling. I will work with my collaborative partner, Investing in Children, to create a youth advisory panel and ensure that the voices of neurodivergent children and young people are central to all aspects of my research.

If you have any questions, or would like more information, please email



The social experiences of autistic pupils in mainstream secondary schools – Gemma Herbert 

Image of Gemma CroppedI’m a 1st year PhD student supervised by Professor Debbie Riby and Dr Mary Hanley. My research asks what inclusion looks like for autistic pupils attending mainstream secondary schools. It is particularly focused on social experiences, i.e., peer relationships, how embedded these pupils are within the social networks of their schools, etc as well as understanding how neurotypical pupils perceive and interact with their autistic peers. I am keen to listen to the autistic voice and will be using participatory research methods to work closely with my collaborative partner, Carmel College as well as other local schools, to create a panel of autistic and neurotypical pupils to help with all aspects of the research process. In October, I will be delivering a talk to pupils at Barnard Castle School. This forms part of their Headspace Speaker Programme and my talk will educate pupils about neurodiversity in general as well as debunk any existing myths.


New Masters & PhD Student - Charlie Greenall 

Image of Charlie GHi, I’m Charlie and I’ve just started my master's (MA Research Methods (Developmental Psychology)) through NINE DTP on a 1+3 award. This summer, I took part in an 8-week internship with the Centre for Neurodiversity and Development (CND&D), organised through Durham’s Infinity Programme for autistic students. I applied to this internship because I was keen to get some hands-on experience in participatory research with Neurodivergent individuals.

Throughout the internship, I have predominantly assisted Dr. Keren MacLennan with her project “Making public places more sensory inclusive for autistic people with a new evidence-based training package for businesses and organisations”. I have also helped with admin tasks related to setting up the recent event that was held by the Centre in collaboration with Durham County Council: “Supporting Autistic People to Thrive in County Durham”. Finally, towards the end of the internship, I helped Dora Sadler with her participatory research project, which focuses on developing training materials on the research process for Neurodivergent Community Consultants who have little to no research experience.

PhD Working with words project - Em Richardson

Photo of working with words logoMy research focusses on helping autistic children understand ambiguous language, specifically words with multiple meanings. The aim is to develop a speech and language intervention program that Special Educational Needs schools can use to tackle something they have confirmed is a cause of confusion when teaching vocabulary.

I'm working alongside Ascent Trust, a local provider of SEN education and my partners on this project. I hope to start delivering the intervention in January 2024

New Impact project - Triple A funded by Research England and the ESRC-IAA 

In January 2021 we started a new project jointly funded by strategic priority funding from Research England and the ESRC-IAA and this impact work is in collaboration with Durham County Council. We are developing a new teacher resource and new training tool which is for use online by teachers and support workers to focus on anxiety, attention and arousal and the impact of these three key issues on attention and learning for pupils. Watch this space and see our new project page coming very soon on this site.

Family well-being and anxiety in Williams Syndrome. An International study 

We are so pleased that Autour des Williams have funded us to conduct a 12-month project on anxiety and family well-being in Williams syndrome. The project is supported by the Federation of Williams Syndrome charities and will include a number of WS support groups internationally. This project will be conducted online and we hope to include as many families as possible from as many different countries as possible. The grant commences in February 2021 and we will be developing a brand new page on this website to tell you more. 

New Postdoctoral Fellow funded by the Daphne Jackson Trust 

In September 2020 we welcomed a new Assistant Professor (Research) to our group as Dr Aloka Rudra commenced her two-year Daphne Jackson Trust fellowship based in the Centre / Psychology at Durham. Aloka is studying the sensory reactions of children with autism and those with autism who also have comorbid ADHD. She is using psychophysiological measures of sensory reactions and will be investigating sensory signatures and subgroups of children. Welcome, Aloka! Find out more about Dr Rudra. 

Neurodiversity in the classroom, investigating social transmission between autistic and non-autistic primary school children 

Autistic people often feel alienated from the world, but find they can interact successfully with other autistic people. Little research has been done into autistic-autistic interactions, and how they differ from neurotypical-neurotypical, or autistic-neurotypical interactions. This research project aims to investigate these similarities and differences, and what they might mean for helping all children in the classroom to better understand each other and enjoy their school experience. The researcher is also interested in how different people perceive these interactions based on their diagnostic status. The project will involve both open and closed diffusion as a method of observing the methods, and effectiveness, of social transmission. 

For more information please email or follow @axbey on Twitter. 

Understanding Friendships in Williams Syndrome through the voices of young adults with Williams Syndrome

Led by Ellen Ridley (PhD student funded by the Baily Thomas Charitable Fund)

Funder: The Williams Syndrome Foundation (WSF) 

We are interested in understanding the social experiences of individuals with Williams syndrome (WS). We know that developing and maintaining friendships can be challenging for people with WS, particularly during adolescence and into adulthood. Previous research has explored these issues using parent-report (interviews and questionnaires) and has yielded interesting insights. We wanted to hear directly from young adults with WS, therefore In November 2019, Ellen invited a small group of adults with Williams Syndrome to Durham to reflect on their experiences of anxiety and friendships. Over the course of the day, the adults took part in activity-based discussion and mini individual interviews on social experiences. We value the thoughts, feelings and experiences of people with WS and this research will ensure that we are incorporating their voices to help steer the direction of our WS research. 

The young adults with WS said that they particularly enjoyed the opportunity to express their feelings and experiences alongside each other. We are thankful to the adults who took part, and their family members, for making the journey to Durham.

Understanding pathways to social vulnerability in developmental disorders

Miss Ellen Ridley. Funded by the Baily Thomas Charitable Fund Doctoral Fellowship. 2018-ongoing

Supervisors: Prof Debbie Riby (Durham University), Dr Mary Hanley (Durham University), Prof Jacqui Rodgers (Newcastle University) 

Non-academic collaborator: The Williams Syndrome Foundation (WSF)

This research aims to understand what makes some children socially competent, and others, socially vulnerable. So far, our findings suggest that children across a range of developmental disability groups (Autism, Williams syndrome, ADHD, Fragile X syndrome) are particularly socially vulnerable, compared to their neurotypical peers, and this is underlined by vast individual differences in social interaction styles. For the next stage of the research, we are specifically working with neurotypical children and children with the neurodevelopmental conditions Autism and Williams syndrome. Vulnerability has been acknowledged in Autism and Williams syndrome, however, there is insufficient understanding of the nature of this issue and potential support mechanisms.

This body of work uses a range of methods to develop our understanding of the pathways to social vulnerability, focusing on the role of (i) social interaction behaviours, (ii) heightened anxiety and (iii) learning disabilities. The overall goal will be to produce a new model of social vulnerability that can feed into future support to enhance the lives of individuals with developmental disabilities. 

As of January 2020, Ellen will be recruiting children without additional support needs, as well as autistic children and children with Williams syndrome. We hope to work with many families on this exciting project! 

For further information, or to express interest in taking part, please email:

Managing Repetitive Behaviours: A clinical and cost-effectiveness trial of a parent group intervention to manage restricted and repetitive behaviours in young children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (2018 - 2022)

Professor Debbie Riby & Dr Sarah Thompson (Durham University) with the MRB team at Newcastle and Edinburgh sites

We are pleased to be involved as a partner in a new multisite clinical trial funded by the NIHR. This is a randomised controlled trial for parents of young children with Autism who experience challenging restrictive and repetitive behaviours (RRB) that impact upon their daily living. The trial is focused on the types of very challenging RRBs that impact not only on the young child with Autism and their ability to engage in everyday activities, but more broadly on the family (for example parental and sibling wellbeing). The intervention under consideration in this trial is called ‘Managing Repetitive Behaviours’ (MRB) and the overarching aim of this parent group-based intervention is to address the current gap in service provision and assist families to better understand and manage RRB. 

Parents taking part in this trial will be allocated to either the MRB parent group or Learning About Autism group run by the National Autistic Society. Having two different groups will allow us to find out whether MRB (new intervention with strategies specific to RRB) or Learning About Autism group (established approach with more general strategies) is more effective. 

This project is running from 2018-2022 and Durham University is working with TEWV (NHS Trust) to deliver one of the sites of this multisite intervention. Within Durham University, the research staff working on this project are Dr Sarah Thompson and Professor Deborah Riby and the TEWV clinical team is led by Dr Elspeth Webb. The trial is being sponsored by the Northumberland, Tyne and Wear NHS Foundation Trust and led by Dr Victoria Grahame, Consultant Clinical Psychologist. Find out more about the Parent Study Group.

This study is funded by the NIHR Health Technology Assessment Programme (ref 16/111/95). The views expressed are those of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the NHS, the NIHR or the Department of Health and Social Care. 

Sensory Experiences in the Classroom: Children With and Without Autism (2016 - ongoing)

Liz Jones (ESRC funded 1+3 PhD Studentship)

Supervisors: Dr Debbie Riby, Dr Mary Hanley 

External Collaborative Partner: Croft Community School 

The aim of this project is to use a multi-methods approach to explore how patterns of sensory difficulty in pupils with and without autism impact on learning and educational outcome. We know that appropriate sensory integration is crucial in an educational environment. Sensory stimulation can either enrich or deter from the learning experience. Atypical sensory perception is common in autism and therefore exploring the impact on attention and learning in the classroom is paramount. 

For more information please email 

Cross-Cultural Studies of Cognition & Behaviour in Neurodevelopmental Conditions (2015 - ongoing) 

Funded by a Pfizer Foundation grant to Dr Masahiro Hirai (Jichi Medical University, Japan), Dr Debbie Riby (Durham) and Dr Mary Hanley (Durham) 

Funded by a British Psychological Society international collaboration award to Dr Mary Hanley (Durham) 
In collaboration with Dr Kosuke Asada (Tokyo University, Japan) and Michael-John Derges (Durham) 

In this programme of research we are interested in the impact of culture on cognition and behaviour associated with Williams Syndrome and Autism. Drs Riby & Hanley have been able to disseminate their research in Tokyo to academic audiences (2015) and parent support groups (2016) and with Drs Asada and Hirai it has been possible to investigate i) cultural influences on face perception in autism, and ii) cultural influences on the expression of anxiety in WS. This is an ongoing programme of research.