We’re proud to be supporting the next generation of autism researchers

Mental health is the top research priority for autistic people and their families who want better therapies and support for common and distressing problems like anxiety and depression. 

Our PhD fellowship programme in mental health and autism is based at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience (IoPPN) at King's College London. 

The IoPPN has some of the world’s leading autism researchers and is one of the top two institutes in the world working on psychiatry and neuroscience. 

PhD project: Why do autistic people respond differently to drug treatments for epilepsy, depression and anxiety?

Charlotte Pretzsch and Andreia C. Pereira are using brain scanning techniques to understand how an imbalance in two brain chemicals, Glutamate and GABA, can cause mental health problems in autism.

Normal brain development and function rely on a balance between the chemical messengers, Glutamate and GABA. Recent studies have shown that this is abnormal in people with epilepsy, depression and anxiety. But standard treatments for these conditions often don’t work in autistic people, leading researchers to believe there might be a difference in the chemical signals in their brains.

This is the first time a research team are looking at how these chemical messengers respond to different drugs in the brains of autistic people. They are also looking at whether the levels of these brain chemicals are related to the severity of symptoms. Charlotte, Andreia and the team hope to identify new drug treatments and be able to identify those people most likely to benefit.

PhD project: Why do children with autism behave differently? 

Isabel Yorke is following a group of autistic children, diagnosed between 4 and 8 years old, who are now teenagers. By collecting new information from them and their families she hopes to understand a young autistic person’s risk of developing anxiety and how their anxiety changes over time. 

Most autistic children have additional mental health problems that cause considerable distress to them and their families. Isabel is looking at parenting and the home environment to identify risk factors for mental health problems in autistic children. These factors are well understood in people without autism but how they play a role in the mental health of autistic children is poorly understood. 

The aim of the project is to identify those children at higher risk of developing problems early so that the right support and therapy can be offered. Isabel’s work will also help other researchers focus their efforts on finding better therapies that are effective in reducing the symptoms of anxiety and other mental health problems in autistic children and teenagers. 

PhD project: Autism and anxiety in social situations

Hannah Pickard wants to improve the lives of autistic people and their families by better understanding the causes and triggers of social anxiety in autism. 

Hannah is finding out how mental processes cause and maintain anxiety in autistic people. The project aims to identify the key mental processes for social anxiety in autism and find the best way of managing it. 

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is very useful in people without autism. Hannah hopes to show how to create new therapies and adapt existing ones like CBT for use with autistic people. Her research will provide new knowledge to help those dealing with mental health issues on top of the behavioural difficulties already present in autism.