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Current Projects

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

Academic outcomes for autistic pupils in mainstream schools are hugely variable and there are also reported differences in the experiences that autistic pupils have in mainstream schools. Autistic pupils report experiencing more bullying than their peers, and many do not find school a positive place to be. This project, focuses on school outcomes (academic and well-being) and the factors that impact these, so that more targeted support can be developed for autistic pupils.

This project first involved capturing the meaning of school success first-hand from autistic adolescentsThis phase also probed barriers and facilitators of success. The second phase 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 please email:

Understanding school attendance experiences for autistic pupils – Chloe Fielding 

A high percentage of neurodivergent children and young people experience school distress, and this can lead to attendance difficulties at school. School distress can also lead to engagement problems while in school, meaning that it can impact achievement. School related distress can have significant impacts on the well-being of neurodivergent children and young people, and their families. My PhD research focuses on understanding school distress in relation to school attendance difficulties for autistic adolescents in particular. A key aspect of this project is that autistic young people are involved in its design. 

My research will focus on anxiety at school and its contribution to school distress for neurodivergent pupils. I aim to use a mixed methods approach to explore who experiences anxiety in mainstream schools, the factors that lead to school distress, and what might help. I will work alongside my collaborative partner, Investing in Children, to create a youth advisory panel who will shape this research from the outset.  

For more information about this project or about participating, please email 

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

My doctoral research seeks to understand the social experiences of autistic pupils in mainstream secondary schools. 70% of autistic pupils attend mainstream schools. However, attendance alone is insufficient to create a truly inclusive educational experience and further research is needed to understand and improve the inclusion experience of autistic secondary school pupils.Using a mixed-methods and interdisciplinary approach, my research explores: (i) how autistic pupils conceptualise their social experiences, (ii) how embedded autistic pupils are in social networks within mainstream secondary schools and (iii) the first impressions made of autistic pupils and how this links to wider social experiences and education. Via my collaboration with Carmel College, I am creating a participatory panel of autistic and neurotypical young people to guide my project thus ensuring the autistic voice is heard in all aspects of my work.  

I am currently seeking the perspectives of teachers in mainstream schools for my master’s project: Embracing neurodiversity in the classroom: Teacher Reflections’. Please follow this link to complete a questionnaire: Questionnaire Link. I am also recruiting primary school teachers to interview.

For more information, please email or follow @GemHerb on Twitter 

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.