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Neurodevelopmental paths to autism: Mapping the cascading effects of altered social attention on parent-child interaction

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  • Full or part time
    Dr M W Wan
    Prof J Green
  • Application Deadline
    Applications accepted all year round
  • Self-Funded PhD Students Only
    Self-Funded PhD Students Only

Project Description

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) emerges through a complex developmental interaction between genetic and environmental risk factors, which act to alter early brain development. In the last decade or so, prospective study of infants at high familial risk for ASD (i.e. they have a sibling with autism) has allowed researchers to look back at data collected during infancy in children with a subsequent diagnosis to understand the earliest roots of the condition. This approach has uncovered multiple early predictors of later ASD (Jones et al., 2014), including slower attention shifting, diminished responsiveness to eye gaze, reduced engagement of social brain responses, and better visual search.

Under neuroconstructivist theories of brain development, alterations in how a child processes their environment will affect what they can learn, as well as what information they seek from others around them. In turn, this can affect the behaviour of their social partners. Our previous work was the first to identify emerging differences in parent-child interaction in infants with and without later ASD, including in their mutuality (Wan et al., 2012, 2013). This may inadvertently reduce the child’s social opportunities, thereby further altering their social inputs and potentially exacerbating their social difficulties. Understanding how early neurocognitive alterations have cascading effects on parental behaviour and influence the emergence of behavioural symptoms is critical to optimising early intervention (Green et al., 2015, 2017).

This PhD project will focus on a subset of longitudinal data (N=100) from the British Autism Study of Infant Siblings (BASIS). The PhD will require the studying of videos of examiner-child interaction and parent-child play interaction, which will include training to code these videos. The student will investigate how these behavioural measures link with other measures already collected from this cohort, including assays of brain, cognitive and behavioural development over the first two years of life.

Training/techniques to be provided:
Full training will be provided in coding videos of parent-child interaction and examiner-child interaction, including MACI (Manchester Assessment of Caregiver-Child Interaction – Infant and Toddler versions). Other training would be provided as appropriate to complete the PhD and for the student’s professional development.

Funding Notes

Candidates are expected to hold (or be about to obtain) a minimum upper second class honours degree (or equivalent) in psychology or a related area. Candidates with experience in coding parent-child interactions, working with infants/toddlers, knowledge of EEG or strong statistical skills are particularly encouraged to apply.

This project has a standard fee. Details of our different fee bands can be found on our website ( For information on how to apply for this project, please visit the Faculty of Biology, Medicine and Health Doctoral Academy website (

Informal enquiries may be made directly to the primary supervisor.


Green J., Charman T., Pickles A., Wan M.W., Elsabbagh M., Slonims V., Taylor C…& The BASIS Team (2015). Parent-mediated intervention for infants at high risk of autism: Randomised clinical trial. Lancet Psychiatry, 2, 133-140.

Jones, E.J.H., Gliga, T., Bedford, R., Charman, T., & Johnson, M.H. (2014). Developmental pathways to autism: A review of prospective studies of infants at risk. Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews, 39, 1-33.

Wan, M.W., Green, J., Elsabbagh, M., Johnson, M., Charman, T., Plummer, F. & The BASIS Team (2012). Parent-infant interaction in infant siblings at risk of autism. Research in Developmental Disabilities, 33, 924-932.

Wan, M.W., Green, J., Elsabbagh, M., Johnson, M., Charman, T., Plummer, F. and the BASIS Team (2013), Quality of interaction between at-risk infants and caregiver at 12–15 months is associated with 3-year autism outcome. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 54, 763-771.

Wan, M. W., Brooks, A., Green, J., Abel, K., & Elmadih, A. (2017). Psychometrics and validation of a brief rating measure of parent-infant interaction: Manchester Assessment of Caregiver–Infant Interaction. International Journal of Behavioral Development, 41, 542-549.

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