The Bloomsbury Colleges | PhD Studentships | Studentships 2013 | Culture and autism: how cultural norms shape the neurocognitive development and societal understanding of autism
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Culture and Autism: How Cultural Norms Shape the Neurocognitive Development and Societal Understanding of Autism

Principal Supervisor: Dr Atsushi Senju (Birkbeck)

Co-Supervisor: Dr Liz Pellicano (Institute of Education)

The Centre for Brain and Cognitive Development, Department of Psychological Sciences, Birkbeck, University of London, and the Centre for Research in Autism and Education, the Department of Psychology and Human Development at the Institute of Education, London, are pleased to offer a full scholarship for a 3-year Bloomsbury Colleges collaborative PhD. The studentship will cover course fees at the usual level for UK and EU studentships and a stipend in accord with research council rates.

An important question about human social development is the role of the postnatal environment. Several major theories of social development (e.g. Senju & Johnson, 2009) emphasize the role of input from parents and caregivers as well as those from other members of society, which is essential for the infant to learn about the social world. Yet, experimental control of the postnatal environment is impossible in human studies. One of the most promising ways to study the effects of the postnatal environment is through the use of cross-cultural comparisons: different cultural norms should systematically modulate how the people in each culture learn to process and interact with others. However, very little is known about the effect of cultural background on the development of autism.

The successful PhD candidate will investigate the role of cultural norms about social communication on the development of (1) the cognitive and neural mechanisms underlying face and gaze processing, (2) actual face/gaze behaviour in realistic face-to-face communication, and (3) personal experience in, and attitude towards, face-to-face communication, by contrasting British and Japanese individuals with and without autism. We will address these questions by conducting at least two experiments (Questions 1-2), together with questionnaire and semi-structured interview methods (Question 3).

The project will provide novel and unique insights into the role of the social environment on the perception, and development of, autism. Determining subtle behavioural variations in autism in different cultures will lead to a better understanding of the condition, particularly for ethnically diverse or underserved populations, and may eventually lead to more refined diagnostic criteria and more culturally-appropriate interventions.

Candidate Requirements

Graduates in experimental psychology or related subjects with a good first degree or Masters degree are encouraged to apply.

The project will involve the systematic assessment of social cognition, behaviour and attitudes in both the UK and Japan. It will bring together social, ethical and neurocognitive approaches and will also benefit from the deep understanding of autism and society in Western and Eastern cultures. The student will be strongly connected with brain research groups in both Japan and the UK and the educational research environment at the Centre for Research in Autism and Education (CRAE), and will have broader involvement with the UK's autistic community. The student will also have a unique experience and interactions with other students in both neuroscience and educational psychology, in the UK and in Japan, and in academic and stakeholder groups.

Key References

Koh, H., & Milne, E. (2012). Evidence for a Cultural Influence on Field-Independence in Autism Spectrum Disorder. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 42, 181-190.

Pellicano, E., & Macrae, C.N. (2009). Mutual eye gaze facilitates person categorization for typically developing children, but not for children with autism. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 16, 1094-1099.

Senju, A., & Johnson, M.H. (2009). Atypical eye contact in autism: Models, mechanisms and development. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 33, 1204-1214.

Senju, A., Vernetti, A., Kikuchi, Y., Akechi, H., Hesegawa, T., & Johnson, M.H. (in press.) Cultural background modulates how we look at other persons' gaze, International Journal of Behavioral Development.

Zitzer-Comfort, C., Doyle, T., Masataka, N., Korenberg, J., & Bellugi, U. (2007). Nature and nurture: Williams syndrome across cultures. Developmental Science, 10, 755-762.

Further details about the project may be obtained from:

Principal supervisor: Dr Atsushi Senju,,

Co-Supervisor: Dr Liz Pellicano,,

Further information about PhDs at Birkbeck, University of London is available from:

Application forms and details about how to apply are available from:

Francesca Carter (

Candidates must supply a CV, full transcripts of their qualifications and the following:

1. A statement of no more than 500 words indicating what skills and academic and professional experience you can bring to this project and why you consider you would be the best person to undertake this research. If possible, this should include evidence of your knowledge of the relevant literature in the field.

2. A piece of your academic writing which may be from your previous degree studies or an academic publication for which you were responsible. This should show your skills of critical analysis and your clarity, focus and fluency in the organisation and presentation of your arguments.

Shortlisted candidates will be invited for an interview on 18 March 2013.

Closing date for applications is 28 February 2013