Dr Emma Isabella Williams

Lecturer in Developmental Psychology
+44 (0)1483 686909
41 AC 05

Academic and research departments

School of Psychology.



In the media

Playing A/Part in the ITV Meridian News segment 2019
Co-Investigator on Playing A/Part Project
ITV Meridian News
I feel Different: BBC Animation
Co-Investigator on project team designing animation
BBC: Part of Arts in Quarantine Series


Research interests


Emma Williams, Sarah Glew, Hannah Newman, Agneiska Kapka, Nicola Shaughnessy, Ruth Herbert, Jackie Walduck, Annette Foster, Paul Cooke, Ruth Pethybridge, Caitlin Shaughnessy, Siobhan Hugh-Jones (2023) Practitioner Review: Effectiveness and mechanisms of change in participatory arts-based programmes for promoting youth mental health and well-being – a systematic review
Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry



Participatory arts-based (PAB) programmes refer to a diverse range of community programmes involving active engagement in the creation process that appear helpful to several aspects of children's and young people's (CYP) mental health and well-being. This mixed-methods systematic review synthesises evidence relating to the effectiveness and mechanisms of change in PAB programmes for youth.


Studies were identified following the Preferred Reporting Items for Systematic Reviews and Meta-Analyses approach. Eleven electronic databases were searched for studies of PAB programmes conducted with CYP (aged 4–25 years), which reported mental health and well-being effectiveness outcomes and/or mechanisms of change. A mixed-methods appraisal tool assessed study quality. A narrative synthesis was conducted of effectiveness and challenges in capturing this. Findings relating to reported mechanisms of change were integrated via a metasummary.


Twenty-two studies were included. Evidence of effectiveness from quantitative studies was limited by methodological issues. The metasummary identified mechanisms of change resonant with those proposed in talking therapies. Additionally, PAB programmes appear beneficial to CYP by fostering a therapeutic space characterised by subverting restrictive social rules, communitas that is not perceived as coercive, and inviting play and embodied understanding.


There is good evidence that there are therapeutic processes in PAB programmes. There is a need for more transdisciplinary work to increase understanding of context–mechanism–outcome pathways, including the role played by different art stimuli and practices. Going forward, transdisciplinary teams are needed to quantify short- and long-term mental health and well-being outcomes and to investigate optimal programme durations in relation to population and need. Such teams would also be best placed to work on resolving inter-disciplinary methodological tensions.

Vasudevi Reddy, Emma Williams & Alan Costall (2022) Playful teasing and the emergence of pretence. Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences


The study of the emergence of pretend play in developmental psychology has generally been restricted to analyses of children’s play with toys and everyday objects. The widely accepted criteria for establishing pretence are the child’s manipulation of object identities, attributes or existence. In this paper we argue that there is another arena for pretending—playful pretend teasing—which arises earlier than pretend play with objects and is therefore potentially relevant for understanding the more general emergence of pretence. We present examples of playful pretend teasing in infancy before and around the end of the first year, involving pretend communicative gestures, mis-labelling and almost non-compliance with prohibitions. We argue that the roots of pretence not only lie earlier in human infancy than generally acknowledged, but also are rooted in playful emotional exchanges in which people recognise and respond to violations of communicative gestures and agreements.

Sarah G. Glew, Laura M. Simonds and Emma I Williams (2021) The effects of group singing on the wellbeing and psychosocial outcomes of children and young people: a systematic integrative review. Arts and Health, 13(3). doi.org/10.1080/17533015.2020.1802604


Supporting the wellbeing of young people is a growing issue internationally. Reviews of adult studies suggest the potential of group singing to meet this agenda. This review aimed to examine current evidence regarding the effects of group singing on the wellbeing and psychosocial outcomes of children and young people. A systematic integrative review of electronic databases, including primary research studies which examined wellbeing or psychosocial outcomes for children and young people involved in group singing, yielded thirteen studies. Conclusions about the effectiveness of group singing could not be drawn from quantitative studies, which were of low quality. Qualitative synthesis indicates group singing may support young people’s wellbeing through mechanisms of ‘social connectedness’ and confidence. Current conclusions are limited and additional, high quality qualitative and quantitative research is required to build on these findings. Further careful study may support the development and funding of group singing projects.

Emma I Williams, Kate Gleeson and Bridget E Jones (2019) How pupils on the autism spectrum make sense of themselves in the context of their experiences in a mainstream school setting: A qualitative metasynthesis. Autism, 23(1), https://doi.org/10.1177/1362361317723836


Evidence that interpersonal interactions and self-appraisal in social context are crucial in developing self-understanding raises concerns about how pupils with autism spectrum disorder make sense of themselves in school settings where many experience social marginalisation. Metasynthesis was used to systematically extract and integrate findings from qualitative studies examining the mainstream school experiences of these students. Synthesised findings identified three, intermeshing, aspects of experience which contribute to many pupils with autism spectrum disorder making sense of themselves as ‘different’ to typical peers in a negative way: difficulties linked to autism spectrum disorder; interpersonal relationships, particularly with peers; and accessibility of the school environment. Typical pupils’ attitudes and responses towards peers with autism spectrum disorder, unusual sensory reactions to the physical school environment and individual sense-making about the self are highlighted as key areas requiring further research and intervention to improve the experiences, self-esteem and well-being of pupils with autism spectrum disorder in inclusive settings and to inform educational policy and practice.

Mary C. King, Emma I. Williams, and Kate Gleeson (2019) Using photographs to explore self-understanding in adolescent boys with an autism spectrum condition. Journal of Intellectual & Developmental Disability, 44:2, 232-243, DOI: 10.3109/13668250.2017.1326586


Background: Research evidence suggests that self-understanding is likely to be limited in individuals with autism.

Method: Photo-elicitation interview was used to explore self-understanding in five adolescent boys diagnosed with an autism spectrum condition.

Results: An interpretative phenomenological analysis yielded three superordinate themes: self in action, self extended in time and self in relation to others. These themes captured how participants understood themselves in terms of their actions and abilities, in the context of their past and future and in relation to others.

Implications: The findings suggested that self-understanding is informed by relationships with parents, self-other comparisons and by reflecting on past and future selves, as well as on activities engaged in. Photo-elicitation was effective in engaging participants with the research process.

Emma I. Williams, Alan Costall amd Vasu Reddy (2018) Autism and Triadic Play: An Object Lesson in the Mutuality of the Social and Material. Ecological Psychology, 30:2, 146-173, DOI: 10.1080/10407413.2018.1439140


Children's relations to objects are often seen as operating in a physical, asocial realm distinct from the sociocultural realm of other people. The most influential theories of autism exemplify this assumption, emphasizing problems in relating to other people alongside relatively intact dealings with objects. This article challenges the notion of a rigid social-material divide. It examines evidence of widespread disruption in the object use of children with autism, alongside developmental ecological and sociocultural research highlighting the mutuality of our relations to people and things, to argue that difficulties in relating to other people should themselves lead us to expect corresponding problems in object use.

In support of this argument findings are presented from an empirical study comparing the triadic (parent-object-infant) play of children with autism (ages 1–6) and their parents to that of developmentally matched typical and Down syndrome dyads. Children's response to parental invitations and the proportion of time each child spent engaged with objects and/or their parents were compared. In contrast to the children in the comparison groups, those with autism were more likely to show no interest in parental invitations to act on an object in a particular way due to being preoccupied with their own use of an object and less likely to comply with such invitations. They also spent less time jointly engaged with their parent and an object and more time unengaged or focused exclusively on their own use of an object. These findings are discussed in the context of Gibson's (Citation1979) concept of affordances to further our understanding of the social mediation of object use in children with and without autism and the role unusual child-object relations in autism might play in disrupting ongoing interaction.

Emma Williams and Linda Kendell-Scott (2016) Autism and Object Use: The Mutuality of the Social and Material in Children's Developing Understanding and Use of Everyday Objects. In Doing Things with Things: The Design and Use of Everyday Objects. Edited by Ole Dreier and Alan
Costall. Doi.org/10.4324/9781315577920



This chapter investigates whether, and if so, to what extent the non-linguistic and linguistic spatial conceptualizations of Western middle-class English and Danish infants, when compared to Indigenous 'primitive' Zapotec infants, concerning their abilities to imitate and to comprehend basic spatial relations can account for universal developmental processes. In fact, when compared to the results for the imitation task, the Danish children responded with three times as many IN as UNDER responses, whereas the Zapotec children, on the other hand, responded with slightly more ON responses than IN responses. The notion of linguistic relativity can only partially account for the cross-cultural differences expressed by the Danish and Zapotec children. Thus, the Zapotec children, in responding to the spatial relational imitation task might be said to be responding from a multi-functional cognitive habitus or habitual thought concerning the canonical functions of the basket.


Clare Smith, Emma Williams, Karen Bryan (2017) A systematic scoping review of speech and language therapists’ public health practice for early language development. International Journal of Language and Communication disorders, 52(4), pp. 407-425. doi.org/10.1111/1460-6984.12299



There have been calls for speech and language therapists (SLTs) to work within a public-health framework to support language development. Innovative practice is reported, but the range of services remains unknown. Furthermore, the potential impact of public health practice in speech and language therapy on early child development is also currently unknown. A new method in SLT research, systematic scoping reviews enable greater breadth of focus than traditional systematic reviews when identifying innovative practice.


To report scope and critically appraise evidence of family-focused health-promotion practice for early language development in this area.

Methods & Procedures

Using the Cochrane Public Health Group scoping review framework, data from reports of health-promotion practice with families of children aged 0–3 years were extracted and critically appraised on service delivery, information, reach and evaluation.

Main contribution

Group-based service delivery was the most popular form of service delivery. There were limited reports on the information given in services and on their reach. Questionnaires were the most popular reported evaluation method. Quality of evaluations was poor due to lack of replicability and experimental control in the studies reported.

Conclusions & Implications

This method of systematic review has highlighted the scope of health-promotion practice in speech and language therapy and also demonstrated the lack of evidence for its effectiveness on child language development. It is argued that systematic scoping reviews are valuable for scoping innovative practice in areas where either there is a lack of robust evidence or there is a high level of heterogeneity in practice or evaluation. To support clinician appraisal of available evidence, recommendations are given for development of questionnaire appraisal and for categorization of evidence levels on summary databases.