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Research and Practice in Developmental Disabilities

This group uses a multidisciplinary and systematic approach to research the development of clinical applications for children and adults with developmental disabilities such as Autism Spectrum Disorder and those with an intellectual disability.

The group has internationally recognised expertise in the field and works with academics and other colleagues nationally and internationally. Key areas of research include screening for developmental disabilities and service provision and workforce development. Researchers collaborate with stakeholders in the NHS, social care, education and other services, with people with developmental disabilities and their families and carers. 

Broad areas of research, which frequently overlap, include: 

Screening – the early identification of people with developmental disabilities 

An important aspect of work is the development, validation, and evaluation of short screening tools to facilitate the timely identification and support of those who are likely to have an intellectual disability. Recently, this work has expanded to explore the feasibility of developing a behaviour-based screening tool for autism.  

Examples of projects include:

  • Tackling the health inequalities experienced by people with a learning disability who are homeless. 
  • How can primary care improve the access/service to patients with intellectual disabilities that may improve health outcomes? 


This research is exploring issues in the assessment of people with and without developmental disabilities. This includes the psychometric properties and use in practice of different measures, as well as the presentation of different conditions.  

Workforce Development 

This strand of work explores the recruitment, retention and workforce development of staff in health and social care services, who support people with developmental disabilities, across the lifespan. Implementation science approaches are used to influence and change practice. 

Examples of projects include: 

  • Evaluating a programme to retain GPs in practice 
  • Supporting the development of the mental healthcare workforce within the North of England 
  • Development of a Local Workforce Market for People with Learning Disabilities and or Autism 

Positive Behavioural Support  

This project involved a collaboration between academic staff, colleagues in the NHS and social care, people with a learning disability, their families and carers. The project addressed the need to develop a competent workforce to provide high quality support to people with a learning disability. We developed, implemented, and evaluated a regional Positive Behavioural Support Workforce Development approach, informed by an implementation science theoretical model. 

Examples of projects include: 

  • Transforming Care regional proposal to enable Strategic Workforce Development 
  • Scoping the workforce development needs of health and social care providers delivering Positive Behavioural Support for those with Learning Disabilities across the North East and Cumbria 

Reducing waiting times for the assessment of autism 

This national project in Scotland by the Autism Achieve Alliance explored the factors that influenced waiting times for the assessment and diagnosis of autism. A multi-component intervention, developed in collaboration with NHS colleagues, led to a significant reduction in waiting times. 

Staff knowledge, training, support, and identity 

This series of projects explored the knowledge, attitudes, skills, and confidence of staff and the training and educational approaches which may influence these. 

Examples of projects include:  

  • Developing blended learning CPD modules tailored to the needs of criminal justice staff in relation to identifying and supporting individuals with an intellectual disability. 
  • Measuring and improving non-technical ward round skills in student nurses: developing a methodology and evaluative framework. 
  • Evaluating staff training in managing aggression and assault. 
  • Improving ward round skills of junior doctors 

Service development, composition, provision, and evaluation 

This body of research explored the range of services that are involved in supporting people with developmental disabilities, their professional composition, and ways in which these services develop and change. 

Emotional Recognition 

This research explored the emotional recognition of children and adults with developmental disabilities and the broader impact of differences in this area.  

People with, or at risk of developing, dementia 

This work is exploring the risk of dementia experienced by people with a learning disability, in particular those with Down Syndrome.  

Examples of projects include: 

  • Developing a National profile of people with an intellectual disability and Alzheimer’s Disease in Scotland: A pilot project 
  • Alzheimer’s Disease in people with Down Syndrome: Course, progression and Screening 

Behaviours that challenge 

This research examined service provision and staff responses to behaviours that challenge displayed by people with developmental disabilities. 

Life span relationships: friendships, intimacy, parenting and death 

This body of research explores the identities, life experiences, and relationships of people with developmental abilities across the lifespan. 


This research is investigating the physical and mental health of people with developmental disabilities, health screening, and health promotion. It also includes research into psychological interventions for those with and without developmental disabilities.

Staff members

Group lead: Dale Metcalfe

Dale Metcalfe

Dr Dale Metcalfe



Jo Greer

Dr Jo Greer

Assistant Professor


Kris Mc Carty

Dr Kris McCarty

Associate Professor


Karen McKenzie

Professor Karen McKenzie



Leigh Riby

Professor Leigh Riby



Student members

Research at Northumbria

Research at Northumbria

Research is the life blood of a University and at Northumbria University we pride ourselves on research that makes a difference; research that has application and affects people's lives.

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Research Staff Profiles

Our students learn from the best – inspirational academic staff with a genuine passion for their subject, whose teaching is shaped by world-leading and internationally excellent research.

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