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Exploring social synchrony in neurotypical and autistic children using humanoid robots

Cardiff School of Psychology

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Dr C Jones , Dr E von dem Hagen , Dr Christopher Wallbridge No more applications being accepted Competition Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)

About the Project

The PhD project will investigate the use of humanoid robots as interactive partners in the study of social synchrony, and their potential to aid in the development of social synchrony behaviours in children with autism.

 Social synchrony refers to the spontaneous temporal alignment of behaviours that contribute to social communication, including speech, movement, gesture and facial displays (Feldman, 2007). Examples include nodding in time to your social partner’s speech, or walking together in time. Socially synchronising with another person has a variety of pro-social consequences including increasing rapport (Vacharkulksemsuk & Fredrickson, 2011), affiliation (Hove & Risen, 2009) and co-operation (Rabinowitch & Meltzoff, 2017). Thus, social synchrony is a critical part of successful social interaction. Social synchrony can be measured in naturalistic settings using observational measures. However, lab experiments have demonstrated that just the act of tapping in time with a social partner is sufficient to induce the positive effects of social synchrony (Hove & Risen, 2009). There is emerging evidence that social synchrony is atypical in autism (e.g. Kaur et al., 2018; Koehne et al., 2016) and it can be hypothesised that this relates to the difficulties in social communication that are characteristic of the condition.

 An exciting and emerging technique for measuring the ability of humans to use social synchrony is humanoid robots. These robots (our lab uses Nao and Pepper robots) can be carefully controlled and this predictability makes them ideal for use in synchrony research, which relies on precise temporal measurements. The PhD will involve two phases. The first will involve the development and testing of a novel protocol to assess social synchrony in children using humanoid robots as the social partner. The second phase will use these paradigms to measure social synchrony in autistic children, with a focus on how capacity for social synchrony contributes to key autistic traits. The specific design of the PhD will be determined by the student under the guidance of their supervisors. The PhD will make an important contribution to our understanding of the role of social synchrony in the social development of both neurotypical and autistic children.

The PhD project will be based in the School of Psychology at Cardiff University in the Wales Autism Research Centre, which is part of the Cardiff University Centre for Human Developmental Science. The project is also in collaboration Cardiff University Centre for Artificial Intelligence, Robotics and Human-Machine Systems (IROHMS). The student will be supervised by an interdisciplinary team with expertise in developmental psychology and neuroscience (E. von dem Hagen, C. Jones), and robotics (C. Wallbridge). We are looking for an enthusiastic and motivated individual with an excellent degree in psychology, medicine, neuroscience, physics, engineering/computer science, or a related discipline.

Any questions about the project can be directed to Dr Catherine Jones [Email Address Removed]

The studentship will commence in October 2021 and will cover your tuition fees (at UK level) as well as a maintenance grant. In 2020-21 the maintenance grant for full-time students was £15,285 per annum. As well as tuition fees and a maintenance grant, all School of Psychology students receive access to courses offered by the University’s Doctoral Academy and become members of the University Doctoral Academy.

As only one studentship is available and a very high standard of applications is typically received, the successful applicant is likely to have a very good first degree (a First or Upper Second class BSc Honours or equivalent) and/or be distinguished by having relevant research experience.

Funding Notes

This studentship is open to Home, EU or international students. The award offered will cover Home fees and maintenance stipend. International/EU candidates are welcomed but may need to self-fund the difference between Home and International fees.

However, there are a limited number of studentships available for international/EU applicants that can cover full or partial fees


Feldman, R. (2007). Parent-infant synchrony: Biological foundations and developmental outcomes. Curr Dir Psychol Sci, 16(6), 340-345. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-8721.2007.00532.x
Hove, M. J., & Risen, J. L. (2009). It's all in the timing: Interpersonal sychrony increases affiliation. Social Cognition, 27(6), 949-960.
Kaur, M., M. Srinivasan, S., & N. Bhat, A. (2018). Comparing motor performance, praxis, coordination, and interpersonal synchrony between children with and without Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Research in Developmental Disabilities, 72, 79-95. doi:10.1016/j.ridd.2017.10.025
Koehne, S., Hatri, A., Cacioppo, J. T., & Dziobek, I. (2016). Perceived interpersonal synchrony increases empathy: Insights from autism spectrum disorder. Cognition, 146, 8-15. doi:10.1016/j.cognition.2015.09.007
Rabinowitch, T.-C., & Meltzoff, A. N. (2017). Synchronized movement experience enhances peer cooperation in preschool children. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 160, 21-32. doi:10.1016/j.jecp.2017.03.001
Vacharkulksemsuk, T., & Fredrickson, B. L. (2011). Strangers in sync: Achieving embodied rapport through shared movements. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. doi:10.1016/j.jesp.2011.07.015
How to Apply
Applicants should apply to the Doctor of Philosophy in Psychology with a start date of October 2021
In the research proposal section of your application, please specify the project title and supervisors of this project and copy the project description in the text box provided. In the funding section, please select 'I will be applying for a scholarship/grant' and specify that you are applying for advertised funding from Exploring social synchrony in neurotypical and autistic children using humanoid robot.
Deadline for applications is the 19th March 2021 with interviews taking place in April 2021

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