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Durham University

Centre for Developmental Disorders

Ongoing Research Projects

New MSc Dissertation Projects 2020

We are pleased to have several MSc Developmental Psychopathology students studying a range of issues this academic year for their dissertations - from understanding children's social skills, to considering the impact of sensory information on attending in class, to the ability to process faces ... we wish them all good luck with their research this academic year!

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 better understand each other and enjoy their school experience. The researcher is also interested in how different people perceive said 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 were interested in hearing 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 voiced 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

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. You can find out more by visiting

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.

The Development of Anxiety in Children - project update

Dr Mary Hanley (Project Supervisor)

Thank you to all parents and children who took part in our recent study on anxiety. The aim of this study was to explore the relationship between anxiety and executive function in typically developing children. Executive functions are skills we use that allow us to plan, organize, and monitor our own behaviours. They are particularly important in helping us handle challenging or new situations.

Individual differences in these abilities mean that some people are better at controlling and monitoring their own behaviour in comparison to others. We have good reason to think that these abilities are important in the development of worry and anxiety. One reason worries are problematic is that we can have difficulty controlling them and switching them off, and this is where executive function abilities may play a role.

In this study, we looked at whether individual differences in executive functions were related to individual differences in anxiety in children. In order to do this, parents completed questionnaires on anxiety as well as a measure of everyday executive function ability in their children (questions such as ‘My child does not think before doing’, or ‘My child has trouble concentrating on tasks, schoolwork etc.’). Children also completed some executive function assessments (e.g. the ability to name something as the opposite to what it actually is , e.g. say something is black when it is white, or describe an arrow as pointing up when it is pointing down’).

Although the children who took part in our study did not have anxiety disorders, our results showed that individual differences in executive functions are related to anxiety traits. In particular, the ability to inhibit (prevent yourself from doing something) and to shift attention (moving on to something new) seemed to be important. We think this makes sense in terms of anxiety, as difficulties with inhibition and attention shifting could contribute to negative worry cycles (where worries circle around and around and it is difficult to stop or move on to think about something else).

None of the measures used here were diagnostic, and the children who took part did not have anxiety disorders. This study has provided important insights for understanding the cognitive processes that might underlie the development of anxiety, and it is something we will continue to work on into the future.

Dr Mary Hanley (Project Supervisor)

The role of family systems factors in psychological outcomes for children with rare genetic syndromes associated with intellectual disability (the GeniSys Project)

Baily Thomas Foundation grant to Dr Debbie Riby (Durham), Dr Katie Cebula (Edinburgh), Professor Richard Hastings (Warwick)


Little is known about how family characteristics and relationships affect outcomes for children with rare genetic intellectual disability (ID) syndromes or how these children affect parents’ wellbeing and sibling adjustment. This research project includes a systematic review of family research in this field, and a questionnaire and observation study of families with a child with Williams syndrome, a genetic syndrome associated with ID, increased anxiety and social interaction difficulties. The aim is to develop practice guidelines, inform family intervention design, and build a new collaborative research programme between three major UK research Universities.

Please visit our website dedicated to this project:

for further information please email:

Social functioning in higher education students with Autism Spectrum Disorder

Miss Emine Gurbuz (funded by a Durham Doctoral Scholarship), 2016-ongoing

Supervisors: Dr Mary Hanley, Dr Debbie Riby

Transition into adulthood is a very challenging period for individuals with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Considering the demands of social relationships and academic requirements, students with ASD in higher education often find it more difficult to adapt compared to their typically developing peers. Furthermore, dropout rates for students with ASD in higher education are greater than in the general student population. The aim of this project is to use a multi-methods approach to understand the nature of the difficulties that students with ASD encounter in their social and academic life. The project will specifically focus on the social challenges while understanding social motivation in young people with an ASD.

To read the first published paper from this project please visit: (note that this is open access)

For further information please contact

Music perception in children with Williams syndrome

Baily Thomas Foundation grant to Prof Pam Heaton (Goldsmiths) and Dr Debbie Riby (Durham)


Whilst some researchers have claimed that individuals with Williams syndrome (WS) have good musical abilities and strong emotional responses to music, the results from several well conducted experimental studies have revealed impairments in fundamental aspects of music perception. The studies conducted in this project resolve the current controversy by investigating music perception in the context of cognitive strengths and difficulties in WS. The overarching aim is to increase understanding of music perception in order to inform the development of targeted musical interventions.

For further information please email

Educational Provision & Challenges for Pupils with ADHD

Miss Cheyenne Yucelen (Laidlaw Scholarship) 2017-2019

Supervisor: Dr Debbie Riby

In this study we are interested in the current educational provision and challenges for pupils who have a diagnosis of ADHD. We are collecting parent insights through an online questionnaire study (summer 2017) and collecting teacher insights via interviews (summer 2018). The overarching aim of the project is to obtain an indepth evaluation of barriers to educational attainment and outcome for pupils who have a diagnosis on ADHD.

Managing anxiety in Williams Syndrome: Feasibility and acceptability of a CBT based intervention

Williams Syndrome Foundation grant to Dr Jacqui Rodgers (Newcastle), Dr Debbie Riby (Durham), Dr Mary Hanley (Durham)


Many young people with Williams Syndrome have additional mental health problems, of which anxiety is the most common. We know that anxiety interferes with enjoyment of life, doing well at school, taking part in activities, and has knock-on effects on the family. The aim of the programme is to assist parents in supporting their child to develop strategies that enable them to cope with their anxiety. Many families have already benefitted from our informal support via the anxiety booklets to share with schools and from attending our WS workshops, but for the first time this package will provide the formal support and intervention that is needed.


For more information please email:

Sensory Experiences in the Classroom: Children With and Without Autism

Liz Jones (ESRC funded 1+3 PhD Studentship) 2016-ongoing

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

Improving learning outcomes for pupils with Autism

Miss Emily Grew (ESRC funded PhD studnetship), 2015-ongoing

Supervisors: Dr. Debbie Riby, Dr. Mary Hanley

Collaborative Partners: Mr John Philipson (CEO), Mrs Chris Dempster (Director of Education) North East Autism Society

The project aims to understand how aspects of a classroom environment and teaching delivery may impact on learning for pupils with and without autism. Individuals with autism are known to have unusual visual attention patterns and to experience sensory overload from their environment which may impact upon their ability to learn in the classroom. This joint venture between researchers at Durham University and the North East Autism Society will have important implications for engaging pupils with and without autism. The multi-methods approach taken in this project included tracking the eye movements of pupils with and without autism to understand the role of attention in learning.

For further information please email:

Cross-Cultural Studies of Cognition & Behaviour in Neurodevelopmental Disorders

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.

for further information please email