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Dr Emma Williams

Lecturer in Developmental Psychology


Research interests

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.

Current projects

  • 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.

Current project

Observational investigations of early solitary object play in children with autism aged 2-4 years

Relevant publications

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

My publications


Karlsen ML, Coyle A, Williams E (2013) "They never listen": Towards a grounded theory of the role played by trusted adults in the spiritual lives of children, Mental Health, Religion and Culture Taylor & Francis
This qualitative study addresses the lack of research into the role of trusted adults in the spiritual lives of children. Semi-structured interviews were conducted with nine children from a British primary school and the data analysed using a grounded theory approach. Six categories were identified outlining the reciprocal relationship of unavailability and withholding between children and their trusted adults and how children made sense of spirituality in the absence of explicit guidance. It was found that the children had little opportunity for negotiating a shared understanding or experience of spirituality with adults and, as a result, either preserved an isolated and secret sense of spirituality or accepted what they observed to be their trusted adults' stance. The practical and theoretical implications of the children's responses in the absence of trusted adults are discussed and recommendations are made for practice and future research. © 2013 Taylor & Francis.
Williams EI (2009) Who really needs a 'Theory' of Mind?, In: Leudar I, Costall A (eds.), Against Theory of Mind pp. 144-166 Palgrave Macmillan
According to the original theory-theory account of social cognition, 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 do this.
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.
Reddy V, Williams EI, Costantini C, Lang B (2010) Engaging with the self: Mirror behaviour in autism, Down syndrome and typical development, Autism 14 (5) pp. 531-546 Sage Publications
Children with autism achieve mirror self-recognition appropriate to developmental age, but are nonetheless reported to have problems in other aspects of a sense of self. We observed behaviour in the mirror in 12 pre-school children with autism, 13 pre-school children with Down syndrome (DS) and 13 typically developing (TD) toddlers. Reliable differences in reflecting actions, social relatedness and positive affect towards themselves, and an absence of coy smiles differentiated the children with autism from the others. The children with DS showed the highest interest in their own faces. These differences were largely independent of mirror self-recognition (MSR), broadly supporting arguments for dissociation between interpersonal and conceptual aspects of self. Mirror behaviour may be a subtle but easily elicited measure of the social quality of a sense of self.
Williams E, Kendell-Scott L, Costall A (2005) Parents' experiences of introducing everyday object use to their children with autism, AUTISM 9 (5) pp. 495-514 SAGE PUBLICATIONS LTD
Smith C, Williams E, Bryan K (2016) A systematic scoping review of speech and language therapists? public health practice for early language development, International Journal of Language & Communication Disorders 52 (4) pp. 407-425 Wiley

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
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.

Objective: There has been limited research comparing the experiences of students with autism spectrum conditions (ASC) in mainstream and non-mainstream educational placements. It is possible that different contexts may influence the social comparisons made by students, influencing their self-perception and self-esteem. This investigation explores whether educational context influences the social comparisons of students with ASC
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.
Elvidge L, Spencely C, Williams EI (2017) What Every Postdoc Needs to Know, World Scientific
Thinking of starting a postdoc? Want to know how to move on from a postdoc? Or simply want to make the best of your postdoc years? Being a postdoc is not a career ... but it can be the pivotal point in the making of one. This friendly, practical, and occasionally humorous guide to all things postdoc combines the three authors? vast experience of postdoc careers and personal development. This is a guide to developing, advancing and furthering yourself and your career. In working through exercises, learning from the experience of others (including the trials and tribulations of the authors), and seeking out information, we hope you will consider what success means on your own terms. In its pages you will find advice on: Choosing the right postdoc for you Maximising your postdoc contract for personal and professional goals Selecting and attaining your next career step (academic or otherwise) Your postdoc is part of the journey towards a range of career destinations; from an industrial R&D specialist to politician, from lecturer to spin-out Chief Executive, and this book is designed to help you get there. Providing indispensable advice on UK-based postdocs for national and international students, it is perfect for those making exciting transitions (student to postdoc, postdoc to the wide world of careers beyond) or for those who simply want to take their postdoc up a gear.
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.
King M, Williams E, Gleeson K (2017) Using photographs to explore self-understanding in adolescent boys with an autism spectrum condition, Journal of Intellectual & Developmental Disability pp. 1-12 Taylor & Francis / Informa Healthcare

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

Audio description (AD) offers untapped potential for delivering content to new audiences, particularly in the realm of cognitive accessibility. To date, bespoke AD orientations, moving beyond the standard blind and visually impaired modality (BVI-AD), have not been researched.

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.

Introduction: Prevalence studies show that fewer girls are diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Conditions (ASCs) than boys. This difference is particularly marked where there is no cognitive impairment. Some suggest that ASCs present differently between males and females, perhaps leading to delayed diagnosis in girls. A review of the literature exploring sex/gender differences found that many studies have measured the severity of ASC symptoms rather than the quality of difference. Limited research has considered the perspectives of parents on the signs noticed in their daughters and the context in which difference is noticed. Objective: This study sought to explore how parents make sense of their daughters? behaviours and the processes by which behaviours are perceived as requiring intervention or diagnosis. Participants: Five parents whose daughters (aged 9-12 years) had recently received a diagnosis of an Autism Spectrum Condition without cognitive impairment were invited to tell their stories of diagnosis. Design: Transcripts were analysed using a narrative approach, focusing on how stories were told. Findings: Narrative themes were identified across transcripts in relation to the process by which behaviours are made sense of. Themes included: daughters only showing their ?real self? in safety; their distress peaking; parents questioning normality; and parents feeling blamed and unheard. Conclusions: The findings are discussed in relation to existing research and theory. Implications are discussed in relation to education and health services and UK policies. Further research into parents? experience of judgement in relation to their child?s behaviour, and exploration of interventions for masking in girls is needed.
In an era of secular (post)modernity, when increasing numbers of people no longer identify with traditional religious groups, this thesis explores, from both subjective and objective perspectives, how atheists and other non-religious people understand, explain and find meaning in the phenomenon of atheists claiming to have had a mystical-type experience. Overall the project consists of three studies, one using directed content analysis and two using constructivist grounded theory.
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