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Sensory experience in the home for people with intellectual disability and autism

Cardiff School of Psychology

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Dr C Jones , Dr G Powell No more applications being accepted Competition Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)

About the Project


Sensory experience is important for individuals with intellectual disability (ID) and autism, and sensory stimulation can provide enjoyment and relaxation. Multi-sensory environments (MSEs), containing sensory equipment that can be controlled to meet a user’s needs, are common in special-needs settings and enhance wellbeing and relaxation. Our previous research found that the potential benefits of MSEs depended on how they were used and the user’s sensory profile (e.g. Unwin, Powell & Jones, in review). The PhD project will translate novel research from our custom-designed MSE into practical improvements in the home environments of people with ID and autism.  

 Rationale and aims

The current climate has highlighted the importance of interventions that can be integrated into the home and that can promote wellbeing and stimulation, especially for vulnerable and potentially isolated groups such as adults with ID and autism.  The PhD student will work closely with the Innovate Trust, who are the largest service provider for individuals with ID in South Wales and an international leader in promoting new smart technologies and increasing digital inclusion for those with ID. By harnessing the potential of new smart technologies, the PhD will translate the benefits of sensory stimulation gained by being in an MSE into peoples’ homes. The student will work with Innovate Trust and the people they support to develop new home-based sensory experiences that can be easily controlled via voice/motor commands. A secondary aim of the project is to understand more about the sensory experience of adults with ID and autism, and the ways in which MSEs and sensory stimulation can be tailored to individual needs.

 Anticipated design and methods

The PhD will be based in the Wales Autism Research Centre, School of Psychology (WARC), Cardiff University. Housed within the Cardiff University Centre for Human Developmental Science, WARC has a customed-designed MSE that will support the project.

 The project will take a two-stage approach, with final decisions about design being driven by the student. First, individuals with ID (with and without autism) will be assessed using established methods that examine the effects of different sensory experiences (e.g. observing behaviours in the MSE; physiological measures of arousal in the MSE; qualitative interviews, sensory questionnaires). These findings will help us to understand how participants’ sensory profiles relate to their sensory needs and preferences, as well as the effect of MSE stimulation on behaviour and affect. Second, we will use novel smart technologies to recreate aspects of the MSEs in the homes of people with ID. For example, someone who responded to visual stimulation could control lights and other visual stimuli in their home via integration with a smart speaker (e.g. Amazon Alexa). We will evaluate the effect of providing ‘smart sensory’ equipment in the home compared to smart speakers without a sensory add-on. Outcomes will focus on wellbeing, relaxation and stimulation, via interviews and structured surveys. 

This studentship is for a ‘collaborative’ award. Applicants should take careful consideration of the working title and description of the project, and may wish to contact the named member of staff for a discussion prior to applying

Applications are invited from exceptional candidates with a first class or strong upper second-class honours degree, or appropriate Master’s degree. Both the University and the ESRC Wales DTP value diversity and equality at all levels and we encourage applications from all sections of the community, irrespective of age, disability, sex, gender identity, marital or civil partnership status, pregnancy or maternity, race, religion or belief and sexual orientation.  

 In line with our commitment to supporting and promoting equality, diversity and inclusion, and to increase recruitment of currently underrepresented groups, applications from Black British, Asian British, minority ethnicity British and mixed race British candidates are particularly encouraged and welcomed. We welcome applications for both full and part-time study, and studentships are available as either ‘1+3’ (i.e. one full time year of research training Masters followed by three years of full-time Doctoral study, or the part-time equivalent), or ‘+3’ (i.e. three years of full-time doctoral study or its part-time equivalent), depending on the needs of the applicant. 

Funding Notes

Studentship Awards commence in October 2021 and will cover your tuition fees as well as a maintenance grant (currently £15,285 p.a. for 2020/21 for full-time students, updated each year); and includes access to an additional Research Training Support Grant (RTSG), though an element of this latter fund may be ‘pooled’ and require separate applications from 2021 onwards. There are other opportunities and benefits available to studentship holders, including an overseas fieldwork allowance (if applicable), internship opportunities, overseas institutional visits and other small grants.


Application deadline: 3rd February 2021 at 12noon. Short-listed applicants will be invited to interview, which are expected to take place in late February 2021. After interview, a final short-list of applicants will be put forward to a Panel convened by the ESRC Wales DTP Management Group at which final decisions with regard to studentship awards will be made. In most cases successful applicants can expect to hear by early April 2021.
ESRC studentships are highly competitive, candidates should have an excellent academic background in the social sciences, holding a 1st or strong upper 2nd class degree; applications from those also holding a relevant research training Masters degree (or an equivalent background in research training) will be considered for a +3 award. Wales DTP studentships are available to both home and international (including EU and EEA) students. All applicants will be eligible for a full award consisting of a maintenance stipend and payment of tuition fees at the UK research organisation rate. Applicants must satisfy studentship eligibility requirements. For further details see the UKRI web site. Successful international student applicants will receive a fully-funded Wales DTP studentship and will not be charged the fees difference between the UK and international rate.
1+3 OR +3?
Awards are available on a 1+3 or +3 basis. 1+3 studentships provides funding for four years (or part-time equivalent), completing a research training Masters in the 1st year, followed by 3 years research funding for a PhD. +3 studentships provide funding for the 3 years PhD research study only (or part-time equivalent).
How to apply:
You can apply online - consideration is automatic on applying for a PhD in Psychology, with an October 2021 start date (programme code RFPDPSYA).
Please use our online application service at
and specify in the funding section that you wish to be considered for ESRC funding. Please specify that you are applying for this particular project and the supervisor.
The application must contain the following documents:
1. Covering letter: Please address to Dr Catherine Jones. The covering letter must name the collaborative studentship being applied for. It must set out your reasons and motivation for applying to study at Cardiff University, and the Psychology Pathway; your understanding, and expectations of doctoral study; and your academic interests generally, and particularly how these relate to the description of the project supplied. The covering letter should be no more than two pages. Please also specify whether you wish to apply on a +3 or 1+3 basis.
2. Academic / Professional Qualifications: Where appropriate, this should also include proof of English Language Competency (7.0 IELTS minimum).
3. References: All applications require two academic references to be submitted in support. Candidates must approach referees themselves and include the references with their application.
4. Curriculum Vitae: This should be no longer than two pages.
5. Research Proposal: For collaborative studentships, the proposal should build directly on the outline description that has been supplied. The proposal should be up to a maximum of 1000 words, not including bibliographic references. We suggest that you use the following five headings in your research proposal:
• Your reflections on the title, aims and purpose of the research;
• An overview of some key research literature relevant to the study;
• Your proposals for developing the design and methods of the study;
• A description of potential outcomes of the project for understanding, knowledge, policy and practice (as appropriate to the topic);
• Bibliographic references

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