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Department of Psychology
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    Department of Psychology
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Dr Lore Thaler – podcasts by and This American Life

 Dr Lore Thaler from Dept of Psychology, Durham University was interviewed and featured for two independent audio features /podcasts. 

Dr Thaler was interviewed for her research on echolocation in people, using techniques such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). Dr Thaler’s research focuses on how people perceive the spatial layout of the environment around them through sound, in particular echolocation, and vision.

Learning to ‘talk things through in your head’ may help people with autism

(25 January 2012)

Dr David William of Durham University

Dr David William of Durham University

The study, led by Dr David Williams from the Psychology Department at Durham, found that the mechanism for using ‘inner speech’ or ‘talking things through in their head’ is intact in children with autism but not always used in the same way as typically developing children do.


Dr Williams found that the use, or lack of, thinking in words is strongly linked to the extent of someone’s communication impairments which are rooted in early childhood.


However, the researchers suggest teaching and intervention strategies for children targeted at encouraging inner speech may make a difference. These strategies, which include encouraging children to describe their actions out loud, have already proven useful for increasing mental flexibility among typically developing children.


It is also suggested that children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) could, for example, benefit from verbal learning of their daily schedule at school rather than using visual timetables as is currently a common approach.


The research by Durham University, Bristol University and City University London is published in Development and Psychopathology.


Dr Williams said: “Most people will ‘think in words’ when trying to solve problems, which helps with planning or particularly complicated tasks.  Young typically developing children tend to talk out loud to guide themselves when they face challenging tasks. 


“However, only from about the age of seven do they talk to themselves in their head and, thus, think in words for problem-solving.  How good people are at this skill is in part determined by their communication experiences as a young child.”


One out of every 100 people in the UK has ASD, which is diagnosed on the basis of a set of core impairments in social engagement, communication and behavioural flexibility.  Children with autism often miss out on the early communicative exchanges when they are young which may explain their tendency not to use inner speech when they are older.  This relative lack of inner speech use might contribute to some of the repetitive behaviours which are common in people with autism. 


In the study, those individuals with more profound communication impairments also struggled most with the use of inner speech for complex tasks.  People with ASD did, however, use inner speech to recall things from their short-term memory.


Dr Williams said: “These results show that inner speech has its roots in interpersonal communication with others early in life, and it demonstrates that people who are poor at communicating with others will generally be poor at communicating with themselves. 


“It also shows that there is a critical distinction between being able to express yourself verbally and actually using silent language for problem-solving.  For example, the participants with ASD in our study were verbally able, yet did not use inner speech to support their planning.”


Caroline Hattersley, Head of Information, Advice and Advocacy at the National Autistic Society, said: “This study presents some interesting results and could further our understanding of autism.  If the findings are replicated on a wider scale they could have a significant impact on how we develop strategies to support children with the disability.”


In the study, 15 high-functioning adults with ASD and 16 comparison participants were asked to complete a commonly used task which measures planning ability, called the Tower of London task.  This task consists of five coloured disks that can be arranged on three individual pegs.  The aim of the task is to transform one arrangement of disks into another by moving the disks between the pegs, one disk at a time, in as few moves as possible.  This type of complex planning task is helped by ‘talking to yourself in your head’.


The participants did the task under normal conditions as well as under an ‘articulatory suppression’ condition whereby they had to repeat out loud a certain word throughout the task – in this case, either the word ‘Tuesday’ or ‘Thursday’.  If someone uses inner speech to help them plan, articulatory suppression prevents them from doing so and will detrimentally affect their planning performance, whereas it will have little impact on the planning performance of someone who doesn’t use inner speech.


The results showed that whilst almost 90 per cent of normally developing adults did significantly worse on the Tower of London task when asked to repeat the word, only a third of people with autism were in any way negatively affected by articulatory suppression during the task.  This suggests that, unlike neurotypical adults, participants with autism do not normally use inner speech to help themselves plan.


The participants also completed a short-term memory task to asses the use of inner speech in short-term recall.


The research was funded by a City University London Research Fellowship to the lead researcher.



Jude Ragan OBE is Headteacher at Queensmill School in London.  Queensmill School is one of the largest state funded schools for children with autism which has over 100 pupils and is accredited by the National Autistic Society.


Jude Ragan OBE said: “Complex planning ahead is not a strength of people with autism which means, for people most severely affected, that they can only comprehend the here and now.  This can be hugely stressful and at times quite frightening. Everything that we do in an ASD specific school is to help our pupils recognise when something they are doing might finish, what might happen next and so on.  Encouraging inner speech is very much part of that as it can work as a life-long support.


“In order to encourage children to use inner speech, we start with visual timetables when they are in nursery.  This will have pictures for different activities, such as a nappy for toilet time and a spoon for lunch.  We will change this as the child progresses, to symbols, then symbols with words and then words only.  By the time we are using written tick lists for the child to know what they are doing when, this will be accompanied by speech to begin to build the foundations for inner speech to solve problems. 


“We can then ask the child questions such as ‘What do you have next Tim? What will you need for that? Which room is it in? What happens after that?  This is all scaffolding for inner speech which is naturally a more ‘normal’ way of planning and one that we would want a child to move to if they have the ability to do so.


“We also use ‘parallel talk’ whereby we play alongside the child and talk through what he or she is doing.  That way, we are teaching them in a playful way to talk things through.  We know that neurotypical children learn a great deal about how the world and social interaction works by naturally talking whilst they are playing but children with autism do not normally do this.  It is important for us to show them how they can do that.


“Peer-reviewed research like this is very valuable as it informs the way we teach our pupils.  As educators, we need to remind ourselves that whilst responding to visual cues is a strength of autism, we should never miss an opportunity to develop language, particularly inner language which I feel is more comfortable to a person with autism than spoken language.”



PhD Success 

Congratulations to Helen Knight, Emma Grisdale and David Smailes who have all recently passed their viva and been awarded their PhD.

 Dr Deborah Riby - The Margaret Donaldson Prize Lecture

On Friday 5th September 2014 Dr Deborah Riby from Dept of Psychology, Durham University gave the Margaret Donaldson Prize lecture in Amsterdam at the annual conference of the British Psychological Society (Developmental Section). Dr Riby received the award for her contribution to the field of developmental psychology since completion of her PhD in 2007. Dr Riby’s research focuses on cognition and behaviour in developmental disorders such as Williams syndrome and Autism Spectrum Disorder.

As well as this presentation from Dr Riby, five other members of the department’s Developmental Psychology Research Group also presented posters, individual talks and took part in symposium at the conference.

Exciting new opportunity for students

We are excited to announce a new pathway for our students to access the Clinical Psychology Doctorate (D.Clin.) at Teesside University. The very best of our Psychology (Applied) undergraduate and taught MSc graduate students will be eligible to apply for a new route which will involve a year of clinical internship in local NHS Trusts following graduation. Students accepted onto these internships will be able to apply for a small number of dedicated places on the D.Clin. course at Teesside at the end of the placement. This allows our students to access new opportunities which are increasingly difficult to find nationally, and put them in the very best position to access clinical training.

Clinical Psychology Doctorate (D.Clin.) at Teesside University

A new pathway to access the Teesside University Clinical Psychology Doctorate training programme is being developed. The new pathway will provide a local route for students from Durham and Teesside universities. Recruits on to the new pathway will be selected from students currently undertaking selected psychology programmes in both universities who are expected to complete their studies at the end of the 2014-15 academic year. At Durham University this will be students enrolled on the BSc in Psychology (Applied) at our Queen’s Campus, or taught MSc students in Durham city studying for the MScs in Developmental Psychopathology, Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience or Cognitive Neuroscience.

Students who meet the application criteria will be invited to apply for a limited number of internships in local NHS Trusts. The interns will later be invited to apply to the Teesside University Clinical Psychology Doctorate training programme. A team of people continue working together to implement the new pathway. The team includes representatives from:

  • the Teesside clinical psychology training programme
  • Tees Esk & Wear Valleys NHS Foundation Trust
  • South Tees Acute Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust
  • Teesside University
  • Durham University

The aim is to recruit up to 10 interns who would commence internships in summer 2015 and who would be invited to apply for up to 6 training places commencing in September 2016.

Will I be able to apply?

The first selection stage will be based on academic marks, a written exercise and an interview. A high standard in academic work will be required (details to follow). This initial recruitment stage will also include a written exercise. Those who score highest in the combination of the academic marks and the written exercise will be shortlisted and be invited to be interviewed for an internship. This stage of the recruitment process will take place between February and April 2015. More detailed information will be circulated in due course. The key message for those who may be interested is that a high academic standard will restrict those who are eligible to apply so you should ensure that you do the best you can in academic assignments.

If I succeed in gaining an internship, what happens next?

Interns will work for between 12 and 15 months in one of the two participating NHS Trusts. They will work approximately 30 hours per week and will receive supervision from qualified clinical psychologists. Interns will gain valuable clinical experience and will start to develop clinical skills and increased research experience. The second recruitment stage will give interns a 60% chance (approximately) of gaining a training place on the doctorate. Those interns who wish to apply will be interviewed for a limited number of training places on the programme at Teesside. Interns who apply but who are not selected will have gained valuable experience which will help with other career opportunities (e.g., applications at other clinical psychology training programmes, assistant psychologists posts, other applied psychology or healthcare professional roles). The internships will be unpaid and the 3 year doctorate training programme will be funded (currently a salary at NHS band 6).

Further information on the D.Clin. training at Teesside can be found at


Any questions can be directed to Dr Alexander Easton for those on or applying to the BSc Psychology (Applied) programme or Dr Debbie Riby for those on or entering the taught MSc programmes.

Run The Spectrum

A group of staff and students from the Psychology Department are talking part in ‘Run the Spectrum’, a 5km colour run to raise funds for the North East Autism Society. On the 21st of September, our team will complete the 5km run in Darlington while being doused from head to toe in brightly coloured paint! As part of their fund raising efforts a ‘Coffee and Cake’ morning is being held in the staff common room on Friday the 19th of September. We wish the team all the very best, both for their fund raising and for the event – and we look forward to the photos!!

Contact Details

Durham City
Psychology Department
Durham University
Science Laboratories
South Road
Tel:+44(0)191 3343240

Queen's Campus
Psychology Department
Durham University
Queen's Campus
University Boulevard
TS17 6BH
Tel:+44(0)191 3340101

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