Dr Emma Williams
My primary areas of research interest include:
- Qualitative investigations of how high-functioning individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) make sense of other people
- Autism and the sociocultural context of object use
- The inclusion of children with ASD into mainstream schooling
- The development of social understanding, play and humour in infancy
How do high-functioning individuals with ASD make sense of other people?
According to the theory theory account of understanding other minds children develop a succession of theories of mind that, just like scientific theories, postulate abstract coherent mental entities and laws, and provide predictions, interpretations and explanations. These, in turn, enable them to interact successfully with other people. Individuals with Autism or Asperger's Syndrome are said to be unable to theorise about other minds, resulting in difficulties in relating to the people around them. My research explores the possibility that we can reconceptualise the assumed relationship from the other direction, proposing that it is misleading to construe the task of achieving social understanding as a logical, scientific, one. Rather, it is suggested that typical children do not have to theorise that there are minds as they have an intuitive grasp of them arising from their affective, co-regulated, interactions with other people. High-functioning individuals with autism or Asperger's syndrome, on the other hand, do need to engage in theorising about mind, if they are to bridge the gap that exists between themselves and other people.
- An Interpretative Phenomenologogical Analysis (IPA) of published autobiographical accounts written by individuals diagnosed with either high-Functioning Autism or Asperger's Syndrome.
- A Semi-structured interview study conducted with individuals diagnosed as having high functioning autism or Asperger's syndrome, focussed on their understanding of, and relations with, other people. The information from the interviews will be analysed using IPA.
This work forms part of a larger body of work by a number of researchers, led by Alan Costall and Ivan Leudar, critiquing the “Theory of Mind” approach and presenting alternative accounts of how we make sense of-and make sense to-other people
See: Theory and Psychology (2004) Volume 14, Number 5. Special Issue: Theory of Mind
Autism and the sociocultural context of object use
Psychology appears to have a special problem with objects. To the limited extent that psychological theory even touches on things, they have been regarded as existing in a physical, asocial, realm, as distinct from the sociocultural domain of people. This dualistic assumption, as well as the neglect of material culture, is apparent in current models of dysfunction in autism, which emphasise the difficulties that children with autism have in understanding and relating to other people and say relatively little about object use, other than pretend play. Even where pretend play is considered, the child's actions with objects are not themselves of primary interest to psychologists; rather the child's activity is treated as an indirect 'index' of the development of underlying 'cognitive structures' and the psychological significance of the objects themselves is downplayed.My work in this area, drawing on an important body of 'sociocultural' research, challenges the notion of a rigid separation between the social and material in children's developing understanding of their surroundings. Given the evidence that other people play an important role in introducing objects to children (Valsiner, 1987), it is proposed that the impairment in interpersonal relations experienced by children with autism should itself lead us to expect corresponding disruption in their use of objects. Conversely, an unusual use of objects is likely to manifest itself in disturbances in relating to other people, given the importance of a shared understanding and use of objects in facilitating interaction.
My research has focussed on the following areas:
- reviews of the published empirical and case study literature relating to object use in autism
- observational investigations of various aspects of object play including functional play, solitary object exploration and dyadic object play
- the use of everyday objects in the home
The collated evidence from these studies suggests that, in addition to their well-recognised problems in relating to other people, children with autism do experience widespread difficulties in their use of objects. In stressing the problems that children with autism appear to experience in object use, the purpose is not to downplay the social dimension of autism, in favour of a material one, but rather to highlight the reciprocal nature of the interactions between the child, other people, and objects.
Observational investigations of early solitary object play in children with autism aged 2-4 years
Williams, E., Costall, A. & Reddy, V. (1999). Children with autism experience problems with both people and objects. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 29 (5), 367-378
Williams, E. & Costall, A. (2000). Taking things more seriously: psychological theories of autism and the material-social divide, in Graves, P. (ed.), Matter, Materiality and Modern Culture, Routledge, London, pp. 97-111.
Williams, E., Reddy, V. & Costall, A. (2001). Taking a closer look at functional play in children with autism. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 31 (1), 67-77.
Williams, E. (2003). A comparative review of early forms of object-directed play and parent-infant play in typical infants and young children with autism. Autism: International Journal of Research and Practice, 7(4) 361-377.
Williams, E., Kendall-Scott, L & Costall, A. (2005). Parents' experiences of introducing everyday object use to their children with autism. Autism: International Journal of Research and Practice, 9(5) 521-540.
Williams, E., Kendall-Scott, L. (In press). Everyday objects and children with autism. In Costall, A. and O. Dreier (eds.). Doing Things with Things. Ashgate publishers.
I am currently final year tutor for the BSc Psychology degree and oversee the final year dissertation module.I teach on the following modules:
PS. 203 Developmental Psychology (Level 2)
PS. 210 Research Methods 2: design (Level 2)
M1 Research Methods and Data Analysis
Qualitative Research methods
This chapter presents evidence from personal accounts written by individuals diagnosed with either High-Functioning Autism or Asperger?s Syndrome which turns the theory-theory explanation on its head. These autobiographical writings suggest that it is individuals with autism, not typical children or adults, whose approach to understanding other people can best be characterised as scientific and rule-based. Moreover, the adoption of a logical, rule-based approach to understanding other people by those with a high-functioning Autism Spectrum Disorder leads not to successful social relationships, as the theory-theory account would predict, but instead to inflexibility and frequent social breakdown. I will argue that we do not usually have to theorise that other people have minds in order to understand and relate to them. Our ability to make sense of other people develops from the earliest months of life in the course of our active, affectively patterned, engagement with those around us in many different situational contexts. It is this, not any ?theory?, which underpins our skill in negotiating day-to-day social interactions.
Background: 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.
Aim: 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
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.
Design: Thematic analysis of transcripts of semi-structured interviews. Sixteen participants, eight from a dedicated ASC unit within a mainstream school and eight from a specialist school for ASC were interviewed. This investigation used data previously collected for a separate study.
Findings: In both contexts, participants made different comparisons with Typically Developing (TD) or mainstream peers than to peers with ASC. When comparing themselves to peers with ASC, participants saw themselves as being similar, but superior to them in the sense of having less severe difficulties. There were differences between the contexts in how they compared themselves to TD or mainstream peers. Participants from the unit saw themselves as different, positioned themselves in relation to that difference and described their peers as seeing them negatively. In contrast, participants from the ASC school emphasised similarity to TD friends, and downplayed the impact of ASC. Although aware of negative perceptions towards ASC, this was perceived as a response to the ?label? of ASC, usually from people not personally familiar with the participant.
Conclusions: Participants in different educational contexts made different social comparisons. Placement in a mainstream school unit was associated with greater perception of difference from TD peers than participants in the specialist school.
Implications: The self-perceptions of students with ASC in different educational contexts may have implications for their behaviour and for their mental health, therefore interventions to support inclusion may need to address this directly.
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
a bespoke approach to facilitating access to the emotional content in multimodal narrative texts for autistic audiences.,
This study explores the application of bespoke AD for emotion recognition purposes, from the perspective of individuals with autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) experiencing comorbid alexithymia (emotion recognition difficulties). It aims to establish the suitability of audio description as a vehicle for delivering emotion-based cues to assist with access to affective markers in film narrative.
A study of AD for sight-impaired individuals undertaken by the British Broadcasting Corporation found evidence suggesting AD helped ASD individuals to engage with affective narrative (Fellowes, 2012). Studies of affect with autistic spectrum individuals commonly employ multimodal materials for the purposes of measuring emotion identification (Golan, Baron-Cohen & Golan, 2008), but have not yet incorporated supplementary AD, either as an entertainment or pedagogical resource. Addressing the gap, this project pairs AD remodelling techniques with an intervention study, to test for enhanced affective accessibility in ASD audiences.
Applying a functionalist, skopos-based (Nord, 1997; Vermeer, 2012; Reiss & Vermeer, 2014) approach to modelling AD in the first phase of the study (S1), two new emotion recognition difficulties (ERD) modalities were developed, emoto-descriptive (EMO-AD) and emoto-interpretative (CXT-AD). These were subsequently tested, alongside standard (BVI) AD and a ?zero? AD modality (Z-AD), in an intervention study with young ASD individuals (S2). Results suggested that BVI-AD might represent a confound for this particular audience. Since ?ceiling? effect was observed in the other modalities (EMO-AD, CXT-AD and Z-AD), the efficacy of bespoke AD for emotion recognition applications remains unproven. However, the results indicate that affect-oriented AD, per se, is unlikely to confound ASD audiences. This study represents the first trial of tailor-made AD for audiences with cognitive accessibility needs, representing an interdisciplinary approach bridging the fields of audiovisual translation (Translation Studies) and psychology. As such, it opens up the debate for broader application of AD to aid accessibility in the cognitive arena.
For the first study, 29 self-identifying atheists wrote accounts of personal experiences that could be described as ?spontaneous, transformative, enlightening and/or of a mystical-type?. Codes relating to the content, context, impact and processes involved in such experiences were created, drawn from published psychological studies on the topic. The written accounts were checked against the codes to see if the atheist accounts were recognisable in terms of existing literature. It was found that the atheists? accounts were similar to those in the literature in terms of their descriptions of content, context and impact. There was insufficient data in the accounts to ascertain whether they described the holistic process similar to those in the literature.
The second study used data from the first study supplemented by data from ten semi-structured interviews with selected atheist participants. Data from both the written accounts and interviews were analyzed using constructivist grounded theory to explore how participants made sense of their experiences and how, if at all, it impacted their sense of atheist identity. The participant?s experiences were located within the meaning and identity literature to explore how people who profess not to believe in supernatural agency considered the event meaningful.
From the study, an emergent theory proposes that atheists? experiences can be characterised as an intuitive leaps of meaning which bypass the rational mind. The resulting meaning-made appears to resolve earlier dissonance between the individual?s normal global meaning system and a prior atypical circumstance in participants? lives. After the event, participants assessed the value of their mystical-type experience in a more rational way. Some dismissed it as a temporary brain malfunction, while others valued it and modified their global meaning orientation accordingly. In some cases, where the apparent meaning of the experience conflicted with the participant?s atheist identity, those who valued their experience also modified their atheist identity through processes of assimilation and accommodation.
The above study gave an insider perspective on the topic. In order to pursue alternative outsider perspectives, and to confirm or extend the emergent theory, a third study, also using grounded theory, was carried out utilising a focus group format. In order to gain insight into how the non-religious people, but not necessarily atheists, who may or may not have had such experience themselves, make sense of the idea of atheists having such experiences. Participants were asked to discuss vignettes taken from the account of a participant in the earlier study.
It was found that through their discussions, the focus group participants mobilized resources to negotiate a meaning for such experiences that reduced possible tension between an atheist identity and an experience that could be described as religious or spiritual. Discursively they did this both through relating to the euphoric aspect described in the account and relating anecdotes about people they knew who also had strange experiences. They did not distinguish between explicitly religious and other anomalous experiences, categorising them all under an umbrella category of human experiences, and they saw no reason why religious people would be more likely than the non-religious to have them. Conceptualising them in this way left their own non-religious status unthreatened by the possibility of such an
Background and Aims: Research suggests that females with an Autism Spectrum Condition (ASC) face specific identity threats by not ?fitting? with societal representations of gender and ASC. Despite this little is understood about how females form an understanding of self and what mechanisms facilitate positive identity formation. This study draws upon novel methods to address this gap in the literature asking how do young females with an ASC understand themselves? And how does gender influence this self-understanding?
Method: Eight females with ASC, aged 11-16years, participated in two semi-structured interviewed guided by a photo-elicitation task. Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis (IPA) was used to analyse participants? accounts. Recruitment of an Expert Author, discussion with the research team and reflexive journals ensured credibility of the research findings.
Results: IPA identified three superordinate themes; ?I?m not like them?, ?So who am I and Where do I fit?? and ?I accept who I am? outlining the struggles participants? faced in understanding themselves and how these were overcome. The themes were interpreted within an Identity Process Theory (IPT) framework. This showed that although some females navigated identity formation well, others faced multiple identity threats. To cope with these threats participants engaged in various strategies that negatively impacted their psychological wellbeing.
Conclusions: The findings, facilitated by novel research methods, contribute to the growing field of ASC, gender and identity. Together they demonstrate the complexity of identity formation and highlight possible clinical interventions that may support this process. Future research could further explore what supports young females to develop a positive view of self and evaluate clinical interventions aimed at supporting this. Additional consideration could also be given to the protective role of alternate gender identities and the prevalence of gender dysphoria in ASC.