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Exploring the origins of demand avoidance and relevant interventions

Start date

1st October 2024


2 fully funded 4-year studentships (with the option of MSc + 3 years PhD), Full Time, Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and the Social, Genetic and Developmental Psychiatry Centre, IOPPN.


Some children and young people (CYP) on the autism spectrum have a dramatic negative response to any kind of perceived demand or request, which has been termed ‘extreme/pathological demand avoidance’. This pattern of behaviour can severely limit their opportunities in life and can be a huge challenge for families and schools. 

The two PhD studentships focus on identifying the drivers of extreme demand avoidance in order to find individualised treatment approaches to help these CYP reach their potential. It is likely that different people develop demand avoidance for varying reasons, which may require different approaches to intervention. To develop more targeted, personalised and effective intervention strategies, we need a better understanding of the socio-emotional and neuro-cognitive factors involved in demand avoidance. Both students will work closely with the PDA Society to ensure families and individuals with lived experience inform the research.  The students will also work collaboratively to support each other’s project.

One student will focus on testing the hypothesis that anxiety is the primary driver of demand avoidance and exploring which interventions are most effective. They will develop assessments that make use of new technology to monitor anxiety (e.g., smartwatches measuring electrodermal activity and heart rate) under different, naturalistic conditions. Possible interventions, perhaps including graded exposure approaches in VR, will be explored. The student may also create anxiety-support resources, with the PDA Society, for schools and parents.

The second student will work with the PDA Society to develop a new screening tool for demand avoidance and examine whether individual differences in characteristics such as experience of volition (choice) or responsiveness to reward underpin demand avoidance in some children.  The screener will be refined through focus groups, data will be collected through established clinical partnerships, and advanced psychometric analyses will be conducted. Neurocognitive studies will test novel hypotheses about the drivers of demand avoidance in some CYP, using a range of cutting-edge techniques (neuroimaging, eye-tracking, wearables).  The student may create resources, with the PDA Society, for schools and parents, and help plan the roll out of the screener to further clinical services

Students are anticipated to work together and will benefit from new state-of-the-art clinical research facilities at the new Pears Maudsley Centre for Children and Young People, as well as joining the thriving research groups led by Professors Simonoff and Happe.


Co-Supervisors: Prof. Emily Simonoff and Prof. Francesca Happe

Entry requirements

Applicants should have (or be expected to obtain) a Bachelors degree with 2:1 honours (or Overseas equivalent). A 2:2 degree may be considered only where applicants also offer a Masters with Merit.

Award types and eligibility

Students will be fully funded for four years full time, to include home tuition fees (studentship not available to Overseas applicants), annual stipend and some research and travel costs. There is the possibility for a 1+3 pathway, taking a 1 year MSc followed by 3 year PhD, or going straight into a 4 year PhD.

To be treated as a Home student, candidates must meet one of the following criteria:

•            A UK national (meeting residency requirements)

•            Settled status

•            Pre-settled status (meeting residency requirements)

•            Indefinite leave to remain or enter

Applications from overseas students will be accepted on condition they can pay the difference in fees.

Further information

About the IoPPN (

Studying at the IoPPN (

Research degrees at the IoPPN (link to

 Other relevant links and information:

How to apply

Applicants must complete and submit an online admissions application, via the admissions portal by midnight (23:59 GMT) on 14th January 2024

On the ‘Choosing a programme’ page, if you are applying for the SGDP studentship with 1st supervisor Francesca Happe, please select Social Genetic & Developmental Psychiatry Research MPhil/PhD (Full-time) and include the following reference SGDP-ES-IOPPN-CYP-24. 

If you are applying for the CYP studentship with 1st supervisor Emily Simonoff, please select Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Research MPhil/PhD (Full-Time) and include the following reference CHILD-ES-IOPPN-CYP-24. 

In your application, you will be asked to include:

  • Academic Transcripts – where applicable, academic transcripts must be submitted with the online admissions application
  • Details of your qualifications (you will need to attach copies)
  • A personal statement describing your interests and why you wish to apply for this project. Please include this as an attachment rather than using the text box.
  • Academic References – all admissions applications require one supporting reference. If the applicant is relying on thier referees to submit a reference directly to the College after they have submitted thier admissions application, then the applicant must ensure that (1) their chosen referee is made aware of the funding deadline (i.e. 7 days from application deadline) and (2) that the reference needs to be sent from an institutional email address.

In the Funding section, please tick box 5 and include one of the following references (depending on the chosen studentship): SGDP-ES-IOPPN-CYP-24 for the SGDP studentship with Prof. Francesca Happe or CHILD-ES-IOPPN-CYP-24 for the Child & Adolescent Psychiatry studentship with Prof. Emily Simonoff. 

Please note there is no need to complete the Research Proposal section in your application as the project has already been set. You are welcome to email Prof. Emily Simonoff ( or Prof. Francesca Happe ( for more information regarding the project and studentship. 

If you have any queries regarding the application process, please contact the Education support team at

References must be received by the deadline for the applicant to be eligible. Only shortlisted applicants will be contacted.

Closing date

14th January 2024


30th January 2024


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