Developing digital tools to improve screening for autism: Identifying diagnostic markers based on facial and bodily movements

Supervised by Professor Jennifer Cook and Dr Connor Keating, together with Healios

To apply for this project, please include ‘Cook & Healios’ as the project descriptor in the subject heading of your email. 

Project background:

Current screening tools for autism are ineffective, resulting in high rates of false diagnoses. Thus, resulting in a vast number of autism-related referrals to the NHS every year, causing significant financial burden, and precipitating delays in diagnoses – particularly for autistic girls and children of colour. These issues have led the autism community to call for accurate and unbiased screening tools which address these issues, thus enabling earlier support for autistic people and their families. In response, the Cook lab have created digital tools to facilitate screening for autism using body and facial movement data. So far, this work has focused on the movements of adults. A major step in facilitating early identification of autism is to adapt such screening tools for use with children.

Project description:

In this project, you will work with Professor Jennifer Cook, Dr Hannah Heath, Dr Connor Keating and Healios to adapt existing tasks, which facilitate the assessment of facial and bodily movements, to make them child-friendly. Following this, you will use these tasks to record, and then compare, the facial and bodily movements of autistic and non-autistic children. Finally, with the support of your supervisory team, you will create a classifier tool that can distinguish between autistic and non-autistic children based on movement differences, which could subsequently be used as a screening tool for autism in the future. 

About our lab:

Our lab is a vibrant and friendly research community. We have regular hybrid lab meetings, catch-up meetings, and socials. We strongly believe in supporting each other and working through problems together. The supervisory team, University of Birmingham, and Healios are dedicated to providing a broad range of training and professional development opportunities to ensure that you get the most out of your PhD. Moreover, we will support you to present your findings at national and international conferences, publish your results in academic journals, and conduct public engagement activities. 


We are looking for a highly talented and dedicated PhD student with a 1st class or 2:1 degree in Psychology or a related field (e.g., neuroscience, computer science). An MSc degree in a relevant area is desirable though not necessary. Previous experience in conducting research or working with young children (aged 6-10), and/or autistic people, is desirable but not essential. Previous experience in adapting experimental paradigms, analysing quantitative data using MATLAB, Python and/or R, and in applying machine learning techniques is also desirable but not essential. 

Informal enquiries about the project prior to application can be directed to Professor Jennifer Cook ( or Dr Connor Keating (