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Professor Sue Leekam

Professor Sue Leekam

Emerita Professor

Centre for Human Developmental Science (CUCHDS), 70 Park Place, Cardiff, CF10 3AT



I am a developmental psychologist.  I research neurodevelopment across the lifespan.  

For the last thirty years I have been studying social, cognitive and behavioural development and its mechanisms (attentional, regulatory, and representational processes). My research explores the nature of developmental variation and challenges the conceptual basis of categorical approaches. I study individuals both with and without neurodevelopmental syndromes (e. g. Autism, Williams syndrome). 

I currently hold a Leverhulme Trust Emeritus Fellowship.

Current projects

Ongoing projects


External Committees


PhD and Postdoctoral Training

During a ten-year career in the UK Government I completed a part time Open University degree in Psychology. I then studied for a PhD at Sussex University in Developmental Psychology with Prof Josef Perner (awarded 1988), followed by postdoctoral training in autism with Prof Margot Prior at La Trobe University, Australia.

Early Teaching Career

In 1991, I joined the Psychology Dept at University of Kent UK as lecturer and subsequently Senior Lecturer, moving to Durham University in 2000 as Reader. During this time, I was a grant holder on two ESRC project grants supporting a longitudinal study of children from 0-6 years, in one of the UK’s most economically deprived area. I also established one of the UK’s first masters’ courses in Developmental Psychopathology, initiating a new ESRC-accredited pathway and helping to build new capacity and expertise for the North-East region. I also set up the North East Autism Research (NEAR) group with Newcastle University and was Director of the Centre for Developmental Psychology. I was appointed Professor at Durham University 2008.

Cardiff University appointment

I arrived at Cardiff University in 2009 as Chair in Autism and set up the Wales Autism Research Centre (WARC), the first national autism research centre in the UK, launched in 2010. The centre, now directed by Dr Catherine Jones, has continued to forge strong and lasting partnerships with the Welsh Government and charity colleagues and is contributing to service improvement in the NHS and education. It has also engaged closely with the autism community and contributed to professional training developments and charity-related policy in other countries in Europe. The centre has been funded by external funding from a range of sources including ESRC, Wellcome Trust, Waterloo Foundation, Autistica, Autism Speaks, Health and Care Research Wales, MRC, Baily Thomas Charitable Fund and the Welsh Government.

Research and research impact 

My research interests lie in both Developmental and Clinical Psychology. I carried out some of the original studies of children’s ‘theory of mind’ in the 1980-90s which led to increased international understanding of the difficulties in social cognition in autism and since then have published widely on social, cognitive and behavioural aspects of Autism Spectrum Disorder. My clinical research across many years has consistently supported a dimensional conceptualisation of the autism spectrum. With expertise in the assessment of autism signs and symptoms, I have developed methods that are currently in use in NHS clinical services across Wales and widely used internationally.

I have been enthusiastically committed to the innovative research in developmental psychology taking place at Cardiff University both before and after my retirment. I supported Professor Hay, Professor van Goozen and others in establishing the Cardiff University Centre for Human Developmental Science and the Neurodevelopment Assessment Unit. During this period, I also represented Cardiff University on the Public Health Wales Steering Committee for Neurodevelopmental Service Improvement. Both these initiatives represent unique initiatives for future research and practice in education and health at an international level.

In the last 2-3 years, together with my colleague Dr Catherine Jones, I have also been leading an impact project entitled Increasing awareness and understanding of the SIGNS of autism. This is a partnership with the Welsh Local Government Association, funded by the ESRC Acceleration Fund and the Welsh Government. We have produced training resources based on our research that have impacted increase professional and public awareness in five European countries. The project won Cardiff University’s 2019 Innovation in Healthcare Award. In this partnership work with charities and universities in four European countries in Europe we have also been advising on the development of professional training and research in autism services.

Honours and awards

Awards/external committees

I have been an Associate Editor of the British Journal of Developmental Psychology and have been on the editorial boards of Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorder, Autism: International Journal of Research and Practice and Journal of Applied Research in Intellectual Disability.

I has also served on expert review panels for the UK Medical Research Council and the Economic and Social Research Council and the National Institute for Health Research, UK and  USA. I have held a honorary professorship at University of York and an honorary appointment at the University of Newcastle. I have also held visiting appointments at Hong Kong University, Melbourne University, Macquarie University and La Trobe University.






























I am trained as a cognitive developmental psychologist and my research interests span Developmental and Clinical Psychology. My scientific research publications reflect research interests in the following areas;

Research on children’s theory of mind

My early research on children’s theory of mind in the late 1980s and early 1990s, contributed towards a new research direction for developmental psychology that subsequently came to inform a new cognitive approach to childhood autism. These ideas helped towards a new emphasis on the importance of children’s understanding of other people’s thoughts and feelings that has reached into educational and child care settings.

Cognitive, attentional and sensory aspects of autism

In my research in autism a focus on social attention helped to facilitate greater awareness of low-level factors such as social orienting and speed of gaze processing in explanations of early social cognitive impairment in autism. My research on cognitive and language aspects of autism also had relevance for understanding of autism including longitudinal work tracing the onset, prevalence and changes in autism features in children with typical development, including the study of repetitive behaviours. We also published novel research on the prevalence of sensory features in autism before these became part of the diagnostic criteria. Together with our other research on the repetitive behaviours of children and adults, this research helped to indicate that sensory sensitivity helps to link between insistence on sameness behaviours and anxiety. We also found a relationship between mental health and sensory features in some parents of autistic children and that individual coping style can help to moderate this.

Clinical aspects of autism

In 2002 with colleagues, Dr Lorna Wing and Dr Judith Gould at the National Autistic Society we published the Diagnostic Interview of Social and Communication Disorders (DISCO). This was the first systematic interview schedule that can assess and diagnose autism as a complete spectrum of disorders. In 2007 we published the Repetitive Behaviour Questionnaire-2 which partly derived from the DISCO items and this has since been widely used with parents of children and in a self-report form with adults.  In 2013-2015 our team at Cardiff University , K-U Leuven, Newcastle and Leiden universities  published new algorithms and abbreviated versions of the DISCO which have been incorporated into NHS diagnostic practice and training in Wales, UK and internationally with new research ongoing.

Variation and dimensions in neurodevelopment

In recent years I have been working with research colleagues in Cardiff University, and in Melbourne, Aston,  KU-Leuven, Durham and York universities to examine the pattern of clinical symptoms in more depth. We are studying cluster and factor structure models as part of a dimensional approach to the continuum of the autism spectrum and its co-occurence with other neurodevelopmental disorders. We are also studying the co-occurence of similar and different patterns of social interaction and behavioural responses across different neurodevelopmental groups (e.g. Autism, Williams sundrome ADHD, Fragile X), and in general population samples across time, to understand the implications for development of these disorders and 'typical' development.

Research Impact

Databases, training resources and assessment measures developed for the wider community

The SIGNS Training resources for front line professionals and the public

2017-2018: Film on the SIGNS of Autism: The Birthday Party. Can be watched here: This training film for professionals was produced in an ESRC-funded partnership with the Welsh Government National ASD Development Team. The film extends previous joint work on our earlier work on set of SIGNS posters which have been distributed to every GP surgery in Wales. See press release The film is translated into six languages and is being used in training around the world .

Assessment Questionnaires

The Repetitive Behaviour Questionniare-2 for parents of children with autism and the Repetitive Behaviour Questionnaire-2A for autistic adults (with PhD student Sarah Barrett and her co-supervisor Dr Catherine Jones) are two research questionnaires that are being used in clinical practice in other countries (translations Dutch, Swedish, Spanish, Portuguese, Persian). See the Wales Autism Research Centre page under Resources.

 Development of an Autism Spectrum Disorder database within Betsi Caldwaldr University Health Board

In 2012-2015 with Dr Dawn Wimpory, Bangor University (Co-I: Prof Leekam WARC) a database was developed for the Child Health NHS Database to record ASD diagnosis.

 Research Awareness Resources:

Research Awares booklet.  In July 2012, Dr Mirko Uljarević, Dr Louise White and the WARC team developed a family-friendly leaflet providing information to help parents of children with ASD in choosing an intervention for their child. In 2013, Louise White, Sarah Shenow (Waterloo Foundation) and Gina Gómez de la Cuesta (National Autistic Society and I produced the Autism Research Toolkit for Researchers. These and other resources were part of the ESRC funded Autism Research Policy Practice Hub.  


Research council funding obtained

  • ESRC IAA Fund. Signs of autism: translating a new training film. PI: Leekam & Jones. £18,756.00, March 2018-March 2019
  • ESRC IAA Fund. Increasing awareness of potential signs of autism.PI. Leekam: £38,318.00, July 2016-July 2017 (match funding from Welsh Government)
  • ESRC Seminar Series; Shaping Autism Research in the UK. Seminars in Edinburgh, Newcastle, Cardiff and London. PI Pellicano,Co-Is Charman, Leekam, Fletcher-Watson, Beresford & Milton. £29,868. 2014-2016.
  • ESRC Knowledge Exchange Grant. Development of Research-Policy-Practice Hub. PI: Leekam, S. R., CoI: Wimpory (Bangor University). £200,000 inc. £100, 000 matched funding from Welsh Government. Nov 2012-Mar 2014.
  • ESRC. Integrating research and practice in autism spectrum disorders. PI: Leekam, S. R. & Carrington, S. J. £124,403.40. Jul 2011-Sept 2012.
  • ESRC. CASE Award Using the Diagnostic Interview for Social and Communication Disorders (DISCO) for research. PI: Leekam, S.R. in partnership with National Autistic Society, £64,000. Oct 2009-Dec 2013
  • May 2008-April 2010. ESRC Repetitive behaviours in young children £46,402. PI Leekam, SR.
  • 2001-2003 ESRC Project Grant Dyadic orienting and joint attention in children with autism. PI Leekam, SR £22,611.
  • 2001-2004. ESRC project Grant: Developmental outcomes of joint attention and mindmindedness. PI Elizabeth Meins. Coapp Leekam & Turner, £204,000.

 Other (non RCUK) funding

  •  Waterloo Foundation: Neurodevelopment Assessment Unit: A Feasibility Study. PI. Hay, Van Goozen, CoIs: Leekam, Thapar, Waters: £287,778.00. Oct 2016-March 2020
  • Autism Cymru follow-on funding for the Wales Autism Research Centre. The SIGNS School Project. PI Leekam, funded S. Barrett, postdoc, £64,000, April 2017-July 2018
  • Wellcome Trust ISSF: Visual Attention Control in Individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorders. PI: Leekam, CoIs: Wass, Erichsen, Clarke, Millington, Powell: £49,402.00, Oct 2013-Dec 2014.
  • Welsh Government. Online infrastructure for Research-policy-practice hub. PI: Leekam, S.R. £15,000. March 2013.
  • Welsh Government. Children’s Diagnosis Methods. PI: Leekam, S.R. £42,116. Feb 2013- March 2013.
  • Remedi Research Award. REACH project: Research Exploring Autism spectrum condition Couple relationship satisfaction, Health & wellbeing. PI: Winn, B (PhD student); supervisors: Shelton & Leekam. £1,860. Jan 2013-Jan 2013.
  • Wellcome Trust. Longitudinal follow-up of 22q11.2 Deletion Syndrome: A study of individuals at high risk for schizophrenia. PI: Van den Bree, M.B. Co-Is: Owen, M.J., Thapar, A., Doherty, J., van Goozen, S., Leekam, S.R., Carrington, S.J., Jones, D.K. £69,579. Oct 2012-Sept 2013.
  • Cardiff University Research Opportunities Programme. Effect of early intervention on the social orienting of children with autism. Lidstone, J. & Leekam, S.R. £1,360.00. Aug2012.
  • Strategic Insight Partnership Grant. Funding to work with Dr Judith Gould in meetings with Cardiff University and the Welsh Government. PI: Leekam, £2,000. July 2012.
  • Autism Speaks Trailblazers Award. Tuning anxiety out: Exploring the potential of noise cancellation in Autism Spectrum Disorder sound sensitivity PI: Dr Mark Atherton, Brunel University; Co-I Prof. Leekam, Dr McGonigle, Sue Osborn (Kingwood Trust). £100,000. May 2012-June 2013.
  • Cardiff University Neuroscience and Mental Health Research Institute seed corn funding. White matter alterations in 22q11.2 Deletion Syndrome: a pilot study. PI: Dr Carrington; Co-I: Dr van den Bree, Prof. Leekam, Prof. Jones, Prof. Owen. £4,964.75. Mar 2012-Feb 2013.
  • SENSE Scotland. Joint attention in deaf-blind children. PI. Dr M. Nunez, Glasgow Caledonian. Collaborators, Dr F Franco, Middlesex University, S. Leekam, Cardiff University. Sept 2011-Sept2013.
  • NISCHR Children’s and Young People’s Research Network, Research Development Group. Identification and diagnosis of ASD. PI: Leekam, £2,500. Jul 2011-Jun 2012.
  • WAG & BCUHB: Development of an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) database within the Betsi Caldwadr University Health Board (BCUHB) PI. Dr Wimpory, Coapplicant, Leekam, £73,000. Dec 2010-May 2011.
  • Baily Thomas Charitable Fund: Developing targeted intervention for repetitive behaviours and anxiety in children with Autism Spectrum Disorder. PI: Leekam, £115,618. Oct 2010-Jul 2012.
  • Welsh Assembly Government: Children’s ASD Diagnostic Services in Wales. PI. Leekam, Collaborator, Dr Wimpory, £24,995. May 2010-Oct 2010.
  • Waterloo Foundation: ASD and the Neurobiology of Sensory Symptoms. PI: Dr. D. McGonigle. (2010). Co-apps; Prof Leekam, Prof Eddon, Prof Jones, Prof Singh. £53,473. Apr 2010-Mar 2011.
  • Cardiff University and Waterloo Foundation (matched funding). Research Networking Event Award. Kourkoulou & Leekam, £2,795. Apr 2010-Mar 2011.
  • Welsh Assembly Government Social Care Studentship award Developing effective early intervention for children with Autism Spectrum Disorders. PI: Leekam, £60,000. Jan 2010-Dec 2013.
  • NIHR Research for Patient Benefit Effective therapy for young people with autism spectrum PI: McConachie, Coapp; Leekam, £228,857. Jul 2009-Jul 2011.
  • Waterloo Foundation Aug 2009: Understanding anxiety in children with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD): An awareness-raising training module designed to integrate new research evidence into practice in schools. PI: Leekam, with collaborators, Autism Cymru, £14,889. End date: Apr 2010.
  • 2009. Waterloo Foundation Completed Aug 2009: Understanding anxiety in children with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD): An awareness-raising training module designed to integrate new research evidence into practice in schools. Leekam. £15, 500.
  • Nuffield Foundation. The social foundation of symbolic play.£6,418. PI Leekam with collaborators, J. Hobson, P. Hobson and C. Dissanayake, 2007-2008.
  • Institute of Advanced Studies. La Trobe University. £1,000. 2007
  • Royal Society. Short Visit Grant, Melbourne University. £2,277. 2006.
  • Princeton University, USA to support a collaborative research project on sensory preferences in autism. £2,100. 2005.
  • Macquarie University, Sydney, Visiting Scholar Award. $5,000.Joint attention and language development in blind children, 1998
  • National Autistic Society. Diagnosis of autism. £50,000. 1996-1998.
  • NHS South Thames Health Authority Project Grant.The diagnosis of autistic spectrum disorders PI Leekam. £80,000. 1996-1998
  • Wellcome Trust Project Grant. The origin and development of the joint attention deficit in autism. PI. Leekam £94,000, 1995- 1998.
  • 1993. Royal Society Travel Grant. British-Australian research on the diagnosis of autism £1,300.
  • University of Kent Faculty Grant. Diagnosis in autism £1,500, 1992.
  • La Trobe University, Australia. Fellowship Award. Communication difficulties in autism. £45,000. 1989-1990
  • MRC grant Theory of mind in children with autism with Josef Perner, University of Sussex. 1988-1989.


Postgraduate research interests

I am sorry that I am no longer taking PhD applications. Please contact for enquiries.

Current students

Gareth Davies, D.Clin Psych. 2017-2020. The Development of the Adult Version of the Signposting Questionnaire for Autism (SQ-A (Adult).

Julie Mullis. Professional Doctorate. 2016-2020. How do speech and language therapists develop competence to work with children with autism spectrum disorder?

Past projects

Previous PhD students

Sarah Thompson. 2017. (2nd supervisor). Measuring the bias to look to the eyes in individuals with and without autism spectrum disorder

Sarah Barrett. 2016. Is there a relationship between imagination and repetitive behaviours in autistic adults?

Rhiannon Fyfield 2015. (second supervisor). The rise and fall of repetitive behaviours in a community sample of infants and toddlers.

Rachel Kent 2014. Measuring autism spectrum disorder: associated features and diagnostic criteria.

Mirko Uljarević  2013. Repetitive behaviours, anxiety and sensory problems in children with autism and correlates of anxiety in their parents.

Fiona Kaley 2013 (third supervisor) Investigating factors affecting infant cry and sleep routines from birth to twelve months.

Linda Iao 2011. Children’s understanding of representation.

Anastasia Kourkoulou 2010. Implicit learning in autism spectrum disorders.

Sarah Walker (second supervisor). D.Clin Psych. Intolerance of Uncertaintly in children.

Alice Winstanley 2012 Maternal and infant contributions to development following premature deliveries

Elizabeth Evans 2012. (second supervisor) Biopsychosocial factors in body dissatisfaction and disordered eating attitudes amongst preadolescent girls.

John Thoreson. 2012. (second supervisor) Body Motion Cues Drive First Impressions: Consensus, Truth and the Origins of Personality Trait Judgements based on Targets' Whole-Body Motion.

David Marshall 2011. Attention shifting in children with autism spectrum  disorders.

Susan Scrafton 2009 (second supervisor). Experimental Investigations into how Children and Adults Process the Implicature Associated with the Scalar Term Some. 

Sue Fletcher-Watson 2007: Understanding social attention in autistic spectrum  disorders.

Emma Honey 2006: The relationship between repetitive behaviour and  imagination in autism.

Lucy Carey 2006: Narrative in autism: An intervention in mainstream schools.

Greig Coull, 2006: Pathways to social understanding in typical and atypical  development.

Antonio Gagliano MPhil 2002. The development of pretend play.

Beatriz Lopez 2001: Contextual and global processing in autism.

Previous External Examining

Daisy Crawley, Kings College London, 2020, PhD

Punit Shah, Kings College London, 2017, PhD

Emma Lough, Durham University, 2016, PhD

Riane Jansen, KU Leuven, 2017, PhD

Haneen Jarrar, Goldsmiths College, 2013, PhD

Matthew Hollocks, Institute of Psychiatry, 2013, PhD

Rachel Bedford, Institute of Education, 2012, PhD

Morven McWhirr, Aberdeen University, 2011, PhD

Victoria Hallett, Kings College, UCL, 2010, PhD

Susan Douglas, La Trobe University, Australia, 2007, PhD

Catherine Ames, University of Bristol, 2007, PhD

Sharyn Kerr, University of Western Australia, 2006, PhD

Dagmara Annaz, University College London 2006, PhD

Winnie Chen, University of Newcastle 2005, MPhil

Maki Yasui, University of Lancaster 2005, PhD

Shari Joseph, McGill University, Montreal, 2004, PhD

Carlie Growcott, La Trobe University, Melbourne, 2003. D.Clin

Kate Broomfield, University of Birmingham, 2003. PhD

Caroline Edmonds, University College, London, 2001. PhD

Julie Brown, University of St Andrews, 1996. PhD