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Durham University

Centre for Developmental Disorders


New Project starting 2020

We are thrilled to have secured new ESRC funding for a project in collaboration with the North East Autism Society on eye contact and gaze in autism. We will be joined by Rhys Proud who will be working on this project ... more to follow...

Supporting WS families at a time of uncertainty - covid19

Professor Debbie Riby worked with the Williams Syndrome Foundation to produce flyers for families on 'Anxiety in Uncertain Times' as we are aware that anxiety levels at particularly high, and that for individuals with WS who are suspectible to heightened anxiety, who often prefer regular routines, and who may also have additional medical difficulties this is a particularly dififcult time. This flyer has been distributed via social media and to all UK WS families via the WSF magazine (April 2020 edition). The flyer has also been translated into several languages and distributed to families via support networks in these regions. You can find the English, French, Spanish, German, Dutch, Czech and Serbian versions of the flyer by visiting the Williams Syndrome link of the left side of this page. If you have any questions please email

Our half-day workshop for Educational Psychologists in County Durham

In March 2020 we were asked to run a half-day workshop for Educational Psychologists - organised by Durham County Council, Principal Educational Psychologist.

This was a great opportunity to run an interactive session on the research evidence base regarding sensory processing in Autism, links to sex differences in Autism, and all against the framework of learning in the classroom.

The event was attended by approx 30 delegates and run by Liz Jones, Ellie Hemingway and Debbie Riby.

New Research Assistant joins the team

Helen Probert has recently joined our team as a research assistant on our NIHR-funded autism intervention targeting challenging restrictive and repetitive behaviours. This project is a large multi-site randomised controlled trial study with Newcastle and Edinburgh Universities and a team of researchers as well as clinicians, statisticians etc. We are really pleased that Helen is working on this project with us as she has some excellent research skills having completed her Masters Degree here in Durham last year. Welcome to the team Helen ...


We have currently suspended all face to face research participation and recruitment for our studies due to the ongoing covid-19 pandemic. We will recommence these projects once the situation is safer and we are able to conduct research in a safe and ethically responsible manner.

If you would like to take part in one of our online studies please see below.

We are currently recruiting TEACHERS to complete an online study on awareness and understanding of autism. So far over 65 teachers have participated but can you help us reach 100? - please visit: or contact for further information.

Gaining Research Assistant Experience in the CDD

Hi, I’m a second year psychology undergraduate and part of the research assistant scheme. I’m currently working to support Emine Gürbüz on her PhD, supervised by Dr Mary Hanley. Her work examines social motivation in adults with ASD. I’m helping Emine to recruit participants to fill out an online questionnaire about their social motivations and experiences, and also to code these qualitative responses for thematic analysis. Being part of this scheme is a great opportunity, for a number of reasons. Firstly, the research is valuable, as it questions current assumptions about ASD. Secondly, it’s brilliant to help relieve some of Emine’s workload pressure, even a little bit. Finally, it’s useful for me as a second year because not only does it give me ‘real-world’ research experience, but has also helped me to focus on my dissertation topic, and have a better understanding of how I might go about it. I was also invited to help with a departmental talk, and to sit in with team meetings, so I’ve met some brilliant people, learned about their research, and really started to feel like I belong in the department. I cannot recommend a second-year RA placement highly enough.

New PhD Student: Investigating autism in cognitively able females

Mrs Ellie Hemingway (Funded by Durham University) Started 1 May 2019

Supervisors: Professor Debbie Riby, Dr Mary Hanley

Converging evidence suggests that Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD) may be under-recognised in females with an IQ in the normal range (previously Asperger’s Syndrome). The male-to-female ratio in ASD is highly variable, ranging from around 7:1 in samples with an existing ASD diagnosis, to around 3:1 in community samples. Girls are typically referred for assessment later than boys and without accompanying emotional / behavioural difficulties, are less likely to receive a diagnosis than boys with similar levels of autistic symptoms. The Female Camouflaging Hypothesis, where females mask or compensate autistic symptoms, has been suggested as one factor in the under-recognition of ASD in females. This project aims to use a multi-methods approach to investigate how recognition of ASD in cognitively able girls might be improved, prior to referral for assessment and during assessment itself. Two studies investigating teachers’ perceptions of sex differences of ASD in the classroom will be underway in the New Year.

Student Award - Ellen Ridley

Ellen Ridley was awarded the Psychology Postgraduate Affairs Group (PsyPAG) Masters Award for her MSc dissertation using a cross-syndrome approach to understand social interactions. Ellen presented this research at the PsyPAG 2019 annual conference at Sheffield Hallam University and was presented with the award by David Murphy, President of the British Psychological Society. Ellen is expanding on this work during her PhD research.

INSAR conference dissemination

A number of our PhD students presented their research at the International Society for Autism Research conference in Canada during 2019. Here is Ellen with her poster on social interactions and social vulnerabilities.

Visiting Researcher and Sleep Project

We were thrilled to have Dr Jo Arciuli visit us for 2 months (October and November 2019) from Sydney University to discuss our collaborative project on sleep and learning in developmental disorders. Jo had previously visited on a research fellowship in autumn 2018 and it was great to have her back with the group. Jo also gave a great presentation to the Psychology department on 'Autism in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Communities in Australia’.

NEAS Live Podcast with Professor Riby

Catch this live podcast from Professor Debbie Riby who was invited to talk to Kerrie Highcock from the North East Autism Society

New Impact and Family Engagement Grant

We are thrilled to have been awarded a small pot of funding to enable us to work with families and siblings of children with Williams Syndrome and Autism following on from our Baily Thomas Charitable Foundation grant on the family system (led by Dr Katie Cebula). During 2019 the impact project aims to:

i) provide children, parents, and practitioners with evidenced-based information about factors which relate to positive outcomes/relationships/interactions for siblings

ii) provide children, parents, and practitioners with practical ideas about how to support the development of positive sibling relationships

iii) raise the confidence of parents and practitioners in supporting sibling relationships.

You can follow the project and will be able to access the new resources as they are developed via

New Durham University Blog Post by Emily

One of our final year PhD students - Emily McDougal - was asked by the University to write a short student blog post on her experiences. In this article Emily emphasises the importance of colalboration in psychological research.... Emily is funded by the NINE DTP / ESRC.

Public Lecture June 2019

We are thrilled that the 2019 Public Lecture for the Centre for Developmental Disorders will be given by Dr Joni Holmes who will discuss her recent research on transdiagnostic approaches to understanding the causes of developmental learning problems. Joni is the Head of the ‘Centre for Attention Learning and Memory’ at the Medical Research Council’s Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit, University of Cambridge (CBU). You can visit joni's homepage here:

The event will be on the 12th June 2019 with the lecture from 5-6pm in L50.

All Welcome!! For further information please email

Workshop on Autism for Primary School Staff

During April 2018 we had the pleasure of going in to Mount Pleasant Primary School in Darlington to deliver a workshop to staff on autism. The aim of the session was provide an overview of current understanding of autism and to highlight key issues from the scientific evidence. The other important aim was to give staff the opportunity to think about and discuss approaches to supporting children with autism in their school. The workshop lasted for nearly 2 hours and much of it was driven by the enthusiastic interest and questions from staff. Issues discussed included the profile of strengths and difficulties associated with autism, in particular, social-communication, sensory issues, anxiety and repetitive behaviour. We also discussed some of the work of the team in the Centre for Development Disorders on attention and learning in the classroom for children with autism. The feedback from the staff (of over 30) was exceptionally positive. We were particularly pleased that despite the vast expertise among the staff, everyone reported having learned something new. Staff also appreciated the time and space to come together to discuss supporting children with autism in their school.

If this is something you think your school would benefit from, please do get in touch to let us know.

Dr Mary Hanley & Dr Debbie Riby

Postdoctoral Researcher Joins our Team

Dr Sarah Thompson

In June 2018, Dr Sarah Thompson will join our team as the PDRA for 30 months on our NIHR-funded autism intervention targeting restrictive and repetitive behaviours. This project is a large multi-site randomised controlled trial study with Newcastle and Edinburgh Universities and a team of researchers as well as clinicians, statisticians etc. We are really pleased that Sarah will be working on this project with us as she has some excellent research skills, having completed her PhD in the Wales Autism Research Centre. Welcome to the team and welcome to Durham ...

New PhD Student - Ellen Ridley

We are thrilled that Ellen Ridley has secured an ESRC funded PhD studentship to begin her PhD research on the mechanisms underlying social vulnerability in individuals with Williams Syndrome and Autism Spectrum Disorders. The PhD is a collaborative endeavor with our official partner, the Williams Syndrome Foundation. The project is supervised by Drs Debbie Riby (Durham), Mary Hanley (Durham) and Jacqui Rodgers (Newcastle). We very much look forward to this innovative and important research which will use a range of methods to understand and support social vulnerabilities in individuals with developmental disorders.

Visiting IAS Research Fellow for 2018

Dr Joanne Arciuli - University of Sydney

We are so pleased that Dr Joanne Arciuli will be visiting from October to December 2018 to conduct new collaborative research with us on sleep and implicit learning in children with Autism and those with Williams syndrome - two developmental disabilities both associated with sleep problems and learning difficulties. Dr Arciuli enjoys an international reputation with an excellent publication history in the field of language acquisition and developmental psychology. She has received six ARC grants as a Chief Investigator and produced over 150 research outputs – including 70 peer reviewed journal articles. Dr Arciuli is Associate Editor for the journal Reading and Writing and also for the International Journal of Speech-Language Pathology. We very much look forward to working with Dr Arciuli!!

2018 Annual Public Lecture

The 2018 annual public lecture for the Centre for Developmental Disorders will be given by Prof Edmund Sonuga-Barke (Kings College London) and will be jointly hosted by the Department of Psychology and the School of Education. The event will take place on Wednesday 28th February 2018 at 5pm in lecture theatre L50.

Edmund Sonuga-Barke is an eminent Professor of Developmental Psychology and Neuroscience working in the Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at the Institute of Psychology, Psychiatry and Neuroscience, Kings College London. Professor Sonuga-Barke’s research focuses on improving the lives of children and adolescents with neuro-developmental disorders. To this end, he employs basic developmental science approaches to study the pathogenesis of neuro-developmental conditions; their underlying genetic and environmental risks, mediating brain mechanisms and developmental outcomes.

Team of Postgraduate Students

Once again we have a strong team of postgraduate students working with us for academic year 2017-18, focusing on a range of projects across developmental disabilities. Liz Jones who has moved from the MA course last year, into the first year of her ESRC funded PhD on sensory processing issues in the classroom for pupils on the autism spectrum. Liz joins Emily, Marie and Emine who are all completing their PhD projects on aspects of Autism Spectrum Disorder. We also welcome 10 MSc/MA dissertation students who are working with Debbie and Mary for their dissertation propjects (for the MSc Developmental Psychopathology or MA Research Methods in Developmental Psychology) on a range of studies around aspects of cognition and behaviour in developmental disorders. For example projects range from parental interviews within 'neurodiverse' families, to developing new measures to capture social motivation across Fragile X Syndrome, Williams Syndrome, and Autism .... .to much more.... we wish everyone a productive and enjoyable academic year!

Emine Gurbuz - Research Covered in 'Spectrum' Article (October 2017)

PhD student Emine Gurbuz is conducting research with university students who have an autism spectrum disorder and this article published by Dr Mikle South in 'Spectrum' refers to her fantastic research and the importance of this topic.


The 17th Annual Seattle Club 2017 conference - Durham 18/19th December 2017

Please use the link on the lefthand column to learn more about the Seattle Club conference for research on intellectual and developmental disabilities - we were thrilled to be able to host this annual conference on 18-19th December 2017 in the Department of Psychology and to bring just over 80 delegates to beautiful Durham!

Further information on thre Seattle Club can be found here:

New collaboration with tourism, hospitality & retail sectors: Supporting WS Families

(see also - impact page)

We are extremely excited about a new collaboration we have developed with INTU (shopping centres), 'Tourism for All' and the Williams Syndrome Foundation to continue to develop the support packages that we can provide for families of individuals with Williams syndrome. This new project is funded by Research Impact Funding from Durham University and the project starts in August 2017, feeding into our ongoing 'impact' activities with families. Watch this space...

Annual Neurodevelopmental Disorders Seminar 2017

Several members of the group attended the 2017 'Neurodevelopmental Disorders Seminar' held in Kingston and we presented two posters on our research exploring components of anxiety in Williams Syndrome. Poster 1 focused on longitudinal developmental trajectories of anxiety and Poster 2 focused on the role of 'intolerance of uncertainty' in the maintenance of anxiety in WS and in Autism.

This is an important annual meeting that is excellent support for early career researchers, but is also an ideal opportunity to hear about the newest research in our field.

New PhD students starting with us in October 2017

We are thrilled that we will have two new PhD students starting in October 2017 who will be studying aspects of cognition, behaviour and psychopathology in developmental disorders and who will be members of the Centre.

Here is a brief introduction:

Elise Ng Cordell - Elise completed her MSc Developmental Psychopathology with us here in Durham in 2016 and has since been working as a research assistant at Oxford University. We are thrilled that Elise is returning to Durham to work with us for her PhD and she will be conducting research on the mechanisms underlying heightened anxiety in Williams Syndrome (WS). Elise already has one publication on this topic under review for publication and we anticipate that this new work will make a significant advancement to our theories of anxiety in WS - the most significant mental health challenge for this population. Elise is supported by a prestigious Durham Doctoral Scholarship.

Liz Jones - Liz has already been in Durham for 4-years as an undergraduate and then MA student and will start her 3-year ESRC funded PhD in October on the topic of sensory processing and its' impact in the classroom for pupils with and without an autism spectrum disorder. We are pleased to be working closely with The Croft school for this collaborative studentship.

First round of our Williams Syndrome anxiety intervention - COMPLETE

We have now completed the first round of our Williams Syndrome anxiety intervention and we hope that the parents involved in this programme have found the experience information, useful and impactful. We also enjoyed providing childcare for some of the children with Williams Syndrome and their siblings on the intervention days in Durham!

A growing team of postgraduate researchers studying developmental disorders

The team of postgraduate students we have studying aspects of cognition and behaviour associated with developmental disabilities such as Williams Syndrome and Autism continues to grow. This academic year we have a number of students working with us as they are completing their dissertations for their Masters Degrees, alongside our team of great PhD students. Here is a great picture of the postgraduate research team from the Department of Psychology with Debbie and Mary.

International Meeting for Autism Research - May 2017, San Francisco

We are thrilled to be presenting two of our recent studies at the annual meeting of the International Society for Autism Research, in San Francisco in May 2017.

The International Society for Autism Research is a scientific and professional organization devoted to advancing knowledge about autism spectrum disorders and the annual meeting brings together researchers from throughout the world.

Dr Mary Hanley will be presenting her research entitled 'The Development of Face Expertise in Autism and the Own Race Advantage' and this study has been conducted with colleagues in Japan to advance our understanding of the impact of cultural differences on social cognition in autism. More about this project can be found on the 'ongoing projects' page.

Also involving Dr Mary Hanley and Dr Debbie Riby, the conference will include an oral presentation entitled 'Enhanced Perceptual Capacity in the Classroom: Harnessing Cognitive Strengths to Promote Learning'. This is a collaboration with researchers at UCL in London, building on an earlier British Academy funded study run in Durham. More about this project can be found on the 'ongoing projects' page.

Visiting Academic - Durham Senior International Fellow, Dr Mikle South (Brigham Young University, US)

We are very excited because Dr Mikle South is visiting from the beautiful mountains of Utah, USA where he is Associate Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at Brigham Young University. Mikle will be at Durham University from Jan-June 2017. His research programme aims to understand the underlying nature of anxiety in children and adults with neurodevelopmental concerns. What factors contribute to intense worry in so many people, and how can it be managed better? Dr South also directs a diagnostic clinic for developmental issues, where he sees people of all ages who are concerned about autism, ADHD, learning problems and other developmental issues. Over the past year, he has been interviewing many adults diagnosed with WS, as part of a project looking at possible overlaps between WS and autism spectrum disorder, in the areas of social understanding and managing emotions. During his fellowship at Durham University, Dr South is working with Dr Riby and Dr Hanley to investigate how sensory function, repetitive behaviors, and anxiety work together in WS.

Anxiety workshops for parents of children with Williams syndrome

With funding from the Williams Syndrome Foundation, during 2017 Drs Riby (Durham), Hanley (Durham) and Rodgers (Newcastle) are running a series of workshops for parents / carers of children and young people with Williams syndrome who experience anxiety.

The workshops give parents the skills to become an 'anxiety detective' looking at the potential triggers that we know to be common in WS, and considering a range of potential intervention mechanisms. This also feeds into a newly funded project that is a feasibility trial of a parent group-based cognitive behaivoural therapy intervention for anxiety in WS that wiull run from February 2017 - 2018.

For further information please email


We are thrilled to hold our official Centre for Developmental Disorders launch event on 22nd November 2017 in the Department of Psychology, Durham University.

There will a number of smaller events taking place during the day but we particularly excited about the public lecture that will be given between 6-7 p.m. (in L50) by Prof. Gaia Scerif, Professor of Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience at Oxford University. Gaia will be giving a public lecture on her research on neurodevelopmental disorders. Prof. Scerif is a leader in the field, with her work spanning from genetics to intervention, and her achievements including honours from the British Academy, British Psychological Society, Experimental Psychology Society and the EPSRC (Developing Leaders Award). All welcome for this launch public lecture.