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GW4 BioMed2 MRC DTP PhD project: All too (un)predictable? The effect of environmental predictability and sensory sensitivities on sleep problems in autism

   Department of Psychology

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  Dr Rachael Bedford  No more applications being accepted  Competition Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)

About the Project

This project is one of a number that are in competition for funding from the GW4 BioMed2 MRC Doctoral Training Partnership which is offering up to 20 studentships for entry in October 2023.

The DTP brings together the Universities of Bath, Bristol, Cardiff and Exeter to develop the next generation of biomedical researchers. Students will have access to the combined research strengths, training expertise and resources of the four research-intensive universities. More information may be found on the DTP’s website.


  • Dr Rachael Bedford (lead), University of Bath, Department of Psychology
  • Dr Catherine Jones, Cardiff University, Department of Psychology
  • Dr Georgina Powell, Cardiff University, Department of Psychology


Sensory hyper-sensitivity and sleep problems are common in autistic children. This project investigates the role of environmental predictability and sensory sensitivities in sleep problems for neurotypical and autistic pre-schoolers. The PhD includes advanced methods training in eye-tracking and structural equation modelling.

Understanding predictors of sleep quality is of key importance given the widespread effects of poor sleep on child behaviour (Pesonen et al., 2010) and mental health (Cook et al., 2020). White noise (a sound with equal intensity at every frequency within human hearing) is commonly used to improve sleep quality in neurotypical (NT) and autistic children. Indeed, 44% of parents of autistic children report using white noise as a sleep aid and 60% rated it as effective (Williams et al., 2006). However, a recent systematic review concluded there was limited evidence for its efficacy and argued that there is a clear need for intervention studies that exploit objective measurement of sleep (Reidy et al., 2021).

One mechanism by which white noise might improve sleep is ‘masking’ of external noises. Contemporary Bayesian and Predictive coding theories propose that autistic perception is driven more by ‘bottom-up’ sensory information than ‘top-down’ predictions based on prior experience (Pellicano & Burr, 2012; Van de Cruys et al. 2014). Our own work in infants with an autistic sibling showed that increased sensitivity to sensory stimulation contributes to sleep difficulties (De Laet et al., 2022). Interventions enhancing environmental predictability (e.g. white noise, which reduces signal-noise-ratio, decreasing arousal and disturbance; Lopez et al., 2002) may therefore be particularly beneficial for children with autistic traits and sensory sensitivities.

Research questions:

  1. Does sensitivity to environmental unpredictability moderate the effect of sensory sensitivities on sleep quality?
  2. Does increased environmental predictability (continuous white noise) improve sleep quality in NT and autistic pre-schoolers?

Pre-schoolers (3-5 years; the age when autistic traits become measurable) will be recruited via existing databases (Bath Babylab, Centre for Applied Autism Research, Wales Autism Research Centre), social media and charity partners (Early Years Alliance and National Childbirth Trust).

Study 1: Sensory sensitivities and sleep quality. Online, parent-report questionnaires will enable collection of a large, community sample (N=350), including: sleep quality, sleep strategies (e.g. existing use of white noise), coping with unpredictability, sensory sensitivities, and autistic traits (and scope for student-chosen measures). Structural equation models will test whether coping with unpredictability moderates the link between sensory sensitivities and sleep quality.

Study 2: White noise pilot intervention. This involves a within-subject, one-week intervention in autistic and NT pre-schoolers (N=35/group). A delayed control design will be used (50% participants randomly allocated to ‘sleep as usual’ condition, before taking part in the intervention). Parents who do not currently use white noise will play continuous night-time white noise at 50-55 dB for a week. Initial focus groups with parents of poor sleepers and autistic adults will give qualitative insights into the use of white noise as a sleep aid and provide feedback on the study design. Intervention feasibility and acceptability will be measured via parent survey, retention rate and objective adherence (nights wearing actigraphy). Efficacy estimates for the intervention primary outcome, sleep duration (via actigraphy), will be analysed, along with secondary sleep outcomes. Preliminary evidence for moderation by lab-measures of unpredictability (student designed tasks: e.g. psychophysical audio thresholds, pupil dilation oddball paradigms) will be used to provide effect size estimates for a future well-powered randomised control trial.

This project has the potential to provide important insight into the mechanisms underlying sensory sensitivities and sleep in NT and autistic children. By using robust methodology and an interdisciplinary approach, combining developmental psychopathology, experimental methods and biostatistics, this provides an ideal PhD opportunity.


Applicants must have obtained, or be expected to obtain, a First or Upper Second Class UK Honours degree, or the equivalent qualifications gained outside the UK, in an area appropriate to the skills requirements of the project. Academic qualifications are considered alongside significant relevant non-academic experience.

Non-UK applicants will also be required to have met the English language entry requirements of the University of Bath.


Informal enquiries are welcomed and should be directed to Dr Rachael Bedford on email address [Email Address Removed].

Formal applications must be submitted direct to the GW4 BioMed2 DTP using their online application form.

 A list of all available projects and guidance on how to apply may be found on the DTP’s website. You may apply for up to 2 projects.


 IMPORTANT: You do NOT need to apply to the University of Bath at this stage – only those applicants who are successful in obtaining an offer of funding from the DTP will be required to submit an application for an offer of study from Bath.

Funding Notes

Candidates may be considered for a 4-year GW4 BioMed2 MRC DTP studentship covering tuition fees, a stipend (£17,668 p/a in 2022/23) and a Research & Training Support grant of between £2,000 and £5,000 p/a dependent on project requirements. Studentships are open to both Home and International students; however, International applicants should note that funding does NOT cover the cost of a student visa, healthcare surcharge and other costs of moving to the UK. In line with guidance from UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), the number of awards available to International candidates will be limited to 30% of the total.


• Pesonen, A. K., Räikkönen, K., Paavonen, E. J., Heinonen, K., Komsi, N., Lahti, J., ... & Strandberg, T. (2010). Sleep duration and regularity are associated with behavioral problems in 8-year-old children. International journal of behavioral medicine, 17(4), 298-305.
• Cook, F., Conway, L. J., Giallo, R., Gartland, D., Sciberras, E., & Brown, S. (2020). Infant sleep and child mental health: a longitudinal investigation. Archives of disease in childhood, 105(7), 655-660.
• Williams, G., Sears, L., & Allard, A. (2006). Parent perceptions of efficacy for strategies used to facilitate sleep in children with autism. Journal of Developmental and Physical Disabilities, 18(1), 25-33.
• Riedy, S. M., Smith, M. G., Rocha, S., & Basner, M. (2021). Noise as a sleep aid: A systematic review. Sleep Medicine Reviews, 55, 101385.
• Pellicano, E., & Burr, D. (2012). When the world becomes ‘too real’: a Bayesian explanation of autistic perception. Trends in cognitive sciences, 16(10), 504-510.
• Van de Cruys, S., Evers, K., Van der Hallen, R., Van Eylen, L., Boets, B., De-Wit, L., & Wagemans, J. (2014). Precise minds in uncertain worlds: predictive coding in autism. Psychological review, 121(4), 649.
• De Laet, A., Piccardi, E. S., Begum-Ali, J., Charman, T., Johnson, M. H., Jones, E. J., ... & Gliga, T. (2022). Neuronal gating of tactile input and sleep in 10-month-old infants at typical and elevated likelihood for autism spectrum disorder. Scientific reports, 12(1), 1-11.
• López, H. H., Bracha, A. S., & Bracha, H. S. (2002). Evidence based complementary intervention for insomnia. Hawaii Medical Journal, 61(9).

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