School of Education

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Debra Costley

Associate Professor, Faculty of Social Sciences



Dr Debra Costley has over thirty years of experience in education, particularly special education, in the UK, Australia and the USA. She has worked in special schools, further and higher education in Australia and the UK. She returned to the UK six years ago and has been rebuilding her special education and particularly autism profile by making contacts with key organisations and individuals. Prior to joining the University Debra was National Director, Aspect Practice for Autism Spectrum Australia (Aspect). This involved managing multiple research and evaluation projects and using outcomes in conjunction with evidence informed practice to develop consultancies and workshops for a range of organizations in the Asia Pacific region.

Autism Spectrum Australia runs 9 independent special schools for children on the autism spectrum in New South Wales and South Australia where the education is based on the Aspect Comprehensive Approach for Education (ACAE). Debra was instrumental in researching the elements that make up a comprehensive education model for students on the autism spectrum and worked with a team of teachers to develop a Manual for the approach, which as well as being used in all Aspect schools is now used a basis for consultancies in Singapore, Malaysia and China.

Debra is passionate about translating research into practice and finding innovative ways to close the research to practice gap.

Expertise Summary

Dr Debra Costley has an international reputation in the field of autism across the lifespan, with a particular focus on education. Her research in the last sixteen years has been focused on autism, interventions, and outcomes for children and adults. Examples of interventions evaluated include, Treatment and Education of Autistic and Related Communication Handicapped Children (TEACCH); Pivotal Response Training (PRT); Secret Agent Society social and emotional skills program (SAS); Language Acquisition through Motor Planning (LAMP); and iPads for teaching and learning. Debra was lead author on a book based on research and practical experience aimed at teachers in mainstream schools called A Practical Guide for Teachers of Students with an Autism Spectrum Disorder in Secondary Education. In addition, Debra led the first national projects in Australia that gathered the views of adults and adolescents on a range of subjects from education to employment, in order to identify their experiences, needs and aspirations. These two studies have been used to influence Government policy in Australia and have been published in a variety of forms, including full and summary reports, journal articles, and most recently a book entitled Shining a Light on the Autism Spectrum: Experiences and Aspiration of Adults.

Debra is a member of the NAHT sponsored Autism and Girls Forum, which seeks to highlight the needs and experiences of autistic women and girls.

Previous research was focused on vocational and workplace education and more general special education. In addition, Debra is interested in research methods and has specialized in evaluation.

Debra has always worked to ensure research outcomes are accessible to professionals and parents as well as the general community. To facilitate this translation of research to practice Debra has set up new initiatives in universities and a not-for-profit organization to share research and professional knowledge through workshops, consultancy, publications in a range of forms, forums and conferences. In addition, she is committed to co-creating research with autistic individuals in the spirit of the 'nothing about us without us' autism advocacy movement.

Most recent research has been co-produced with autistic individuals to investigate anxiety in autistic teenagers and with non-autistic teenagers to research school connectedness. Debra is also supporting a project in the Faculty of Science to employ neurodivergent young people and adults.

Teaching Summary

Dr Debra Costley is interested in special education, inclusive education and professional practice. She has a particular focus on education for students on the autism spectrum. In addition, she is… read more

Research Summary

Current projects focus on my interest in co-production. The first is working with a group of secondary school students to evaluate a measure of school connectedness by trialling it in their school… read more

Recent Publications

Autism related (autism and girls; anxiety and stress; peer education and support; strengths and interests)

Moderate learning difficulties in special and mainstream schools and colleges (especially secondary and further)

Students with special educational needs in non-traditional settings, including further and higher education and training, home-schooling, alternative provision, and employment


Student anxiety (because of special needs or school curriculum and testing)

Education policy and practice

Dr Debra Costley is interested in special education, inclusive education and professional practice. She has a particular focus on education for students on the autism spectrum. In addition, she is very interested in research, evaluation, evidence informed practice, and practice based inquiry.

Current Research

Current projects focus on my interest in co-production. The first is working with a group of secondary school students to evaluate a measure of school connectedness by trialling it in their school and analysing the results from their perspective. The research team is comprised of two University researchers and ten Year 10 students. We are also carrying out statitsical analysis of the survey questions and plan to write a paper critiquing the measure and suggesting alternative questions that will answer the questions teachers want to know to help them improve students' connections with school.

The second project is working with the Faculty of Science at the University to train staff to work as mentors/supporters for neurodivergent employees as part of a project to get young people and adults into work. The research element is working with the neurodivergent employees and their mentors to develop a guide for the University about what is needed to support employment in a wide range of settings for neurodivergent people.

Previous recent projects include an investigation of the strategies used by young people on the autism spectrum to cope with anxiety in schools, particularly focussing on masking behaviours. Debra had a Research Development Grant from the School of Education to establish the first phase of this project, which involves autistic co-researchers. There are two important elements to this project; first the co-creation of research; and second interviews with autistic secondary school students. The autistic co-researchers took part in three focus groups (for which they were paid) to help design the next phase of the project which included interview questions for secondary school students. In addition to the autistic adults, the project investigators are Dr Danielle Ropar and Dr Elizabeth Sheppard, from Psychology and Dr Anne Emerson from the School of Education. The results of the co-researcher experience as well as the secondary school interviews about anxiety have been presented at the University of Birmingham Autism study weekend; the University of Nottingham, School of Education Autism Awareness Month seminar; and the Asia Pacific Autism Conference (APAC Singapore) 2019. Two journal papers have been published describing the co-production methodology and the results of the project. A third paper theorised the elements of autistic behaviour that impact on anxiety and the ability for people to tolerate education settings.

Past Research

Dr Debra Costley has been a researcher for over thirty years and has worked in university research centres at the University of Warwick in the UK and Western Sydney University in Australia. During that time she has carried out over forty-five research projects in the areas of education, special education, vocational and work-based learning.

Future Research

Dr Debra Costley is interested in developing her research portfolio to include whole school approaches to the inclusion of students with special educational needs in the UK, with a focus on Universal Design for Learning and planned transitions. She is also looking for opportunities to build on her experience and expertise of the opportunities available for young people with additional needs for transition post school.

Dr Costley is experienced in qualitative and quantitative methods which she uses individually or in combination depending on the research questions and expected outputs and outcomes.

She is also an expert in evaluation and has been a member of the Australasian Evaluation Society for over ten years.

School of Education

University of Nottingham
Jubilee Campus
Wollaton Road
Nottingham, NG8 1BB

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